Do Solar Storms Threaten Life as We Know It?
As severe as the possible effects of global warming might be, many of the worst-case impacts are not likely to occur on timescales less than a decade or so. Of perhaps more immediate concern to civilization as we know it -- quite literally -- is the threat posed by the expected increase in solar activity starting around 2011, which could disrupt many aspects of life that societies now take for granted and depend heavily upon for their daily existence.
Electric power grids, communications and navigation systems (including GPS), and satellites (including weather) could be damaged beyond repair for many years. The consequences could be devastating for commerce, transportation, agriculture and food stocks, fuel and water supplies, human health and medical facilities, national security, and daily life in general.
Keep reading for more on the looming threat of increased solar activity...
A hypothetical scenario in New Scientist envisions the following the year after a violent storm on the surface of the sun:
...millions of Americans are dead and the nation's infrastructure lies in tatters. The World Bank declares America a developing nation. Europe, Scandinavia, China and Japan are also struggling to recover from the same fateful event...
This exact scenario may be hypothetical, but as the New Scientist article notes, a report issued by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) indicates a disaster of this sort is a distinct possibility.
It's been known for centuries that the sun goes through cycles whereby a new period of increasing activity begins about every 11 years. Sunspots -- dark spots on the surface of the sun -- are indicators of solar activity, with solar activity increasing as the number of sunspots increases. Sunspots are sources of huge, violently energetic flares that propel into space streams of charged particles known as the solar wind. The particles themselves can be harmful to astronauts as well as airline passengers, especially on flights over polar regions. More significant are the potentially disastrous effects of geomagnetic storms produced when the solar wind encounters the outer limits of Earth's atmosphere (perhaps some consolation are the brilliant light shows, or auroras, that accompany these encounters).
The current sunspot cycle is at a minimum -- in fact, the deepest minimum since at least 1913. As often true with weather forecast models, models developed by solar physicists and used, for example, by NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), show a large degree of uncertainty as to when this solar minimum will end how big the next maximum will become over the next several years.
Solar maxima, of course, are not new to humanity -- solar monitoring began with Galileo's invention of the telescope 400 years ago. In 1859, an astronomer named Richard Carrington observed an unprecedented outburst of sunspot activity that is believed to have produced the largest magnetic storm on record (see here and here). The next day, stunning auroras produced enough light for reading newspapers in the dark of night and could be seen as far south as Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador and Hawaii (typically auroras are most visible toward the poles). More disconcerting was that telegraph systems worldwide were disrupted to the point where sparks shocked telegraph operators and set telegraph paper on fire. Also, Victorian-era magnetometers were driven off the scale.
In more recent memory, a magnetic storm generated auroras seen as far south as Florida and Cuba and resulted in collapse of Quebec's entire power grid, which fortunately was repaired in about nine hours.
While the impacts of past solar storms may see benign compared to the likes of Hurricane Katrina, the consequences of future spikes in solar activity could be much more extreme. Just as buildings and infrastructure along coastlines create increased vulnerability to hurricanes, our ever-increasing reliance on technology has made us more and more susceptible to the dangers of solar storms. For example, power grids have become more efficient in running electricity networks, but in doing so have become more vulnerable to the potential damages from space weather that might take many months to years to fix. Take a minute and think about how your life -- and everyone else's -- would be affected by an extended, indefinite period without electricity. Not a pleasant thought.
For additional context, according to the NAS report, the cost over just the first year following a severe geomagnetic storm could be as high as $2 trillion (the report doesn't discuss loss of life) -- and NAS puts the recovery time at four to 10 years. In comparison, the costs to date of Hurricane Katrina are estimated at $81 billion to $120 billion.
The New Scientist article questions whether the U.S. would ever bounce back from a catastrophic solar storm. A related editorial notes that "politicians are unlikely to react to warnings of possible space weather catastrophes. Perhaps more traditional ways of catching their attention -- devastating loss of lives and money -- will do the trick." I find it difficult to disagree.
The NAS report does address design and engineering approaches necessary to reduce the vulnerability of current technologies and systems to space weather. It's not clear to what extent thus far the report has led to concrete plans of action. However, such issues will be discussed at a meeting next month in Washington, D.C.: "Space Weather Enterprise Forum 2009: Space Weather and Our Technological Society -- Are We Ready for Solar Max?" I expect to report on this meeting in a future post. Stay tuned!!
Aside: In the aside of my last post, I mentioned my surprise that the potential role of geoenginnering in combating global warming hasn't received more attention in mainstream newspapers and TV news broadcasts. Likewise, my impression is that coverage of solar storms and their potential impacts has been rather limited. In this case I'm even more surprised given that solar storms are (to the best of my knowledge) a less controversial subject and could bring devastating consequences on a shorter time scale than climate change.
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