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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 04/ 6/2009

Do Solar Storms Threaten Life as We Know It?

By Steve Tracton

* Cooling Down: Full Forecast | Geoengineering & Global Warming *

An artist's depiction of high-energy pulses of solar wind from sunspot activity distorting Earth's magnetic field and producing geomagnetic storms. Illustration by K. Endo, Nikkei Science Inc., Japan. Courtesy USGS.

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.

By Steve Tracton  | April 6, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Tracton  
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If you think that is scary, try Googling "super volcano". Yellowstone is somewhere around 30,000 years overdue to erupt (shooting from memory, don't quote me). Look up the portion of the United States that will be completely destroyed (buried in volcanic ash). It is absolutely unbelievable.

Ever read "Black Monday"? I highly recommend it.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 6, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

I saw the New Scientist article. It's important to be ready and I'm not sure the politicians will help. Maybe it's about time to bail out the electrical grid from such a collapse.

Posted by: tengoalyrunr30 | April 6, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

I believe there are ways to "shield" critical electronic systems from geomagnetic storms. However, the "Limbaughs" of this world will scream over the amount of money needed, just as they are now screaming over the deficits likely from the Obama Administration economic stimulus program now. Most of the conservatives around today are in the "no climate change" camp and will say "nothing at all" should result from solar storms.

As for the Yellowstone Caldera, it should be closely monitored, since it IS 30K yrs. overdue. Credit the conservatives with another "Chicken Little" on this issue.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | April 6, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Maybe the Mayan calender predicting the end of days in 2012 will prove correct. It certainly will be interesting to see the effects, if any, these solar storms might have on the weather. Has any1 done a study relating 2 weather extremes during periods of high solar activity? Time 2 go shad fishing, finished with striper fishing at the 301 Bridge til next Dec, did catch & released 247 stripers this season.

Posted by: VaTechBob | April 6, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Bombo47jea wrote, "Credit the conservatives with another "Chicken Little" on this issue."

What does that mean?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 6, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

probably referring to the congressman who balked at something called volcano monitoring that was in the new spending bill

Posted by: asimo | April 6, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

I'm writing from the National Academies, and I wanted to say thanks for linking to our Space Weather report. It's gotten a lot of attention.

I also wanted to point out that the full report is available to read online for those who want every last detail:

Posted by: ReidDossinger | April 6, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Current temp. in Burke: 61.3 with mostly cloudy skies.

VaTechBob :

About that Mayan calender, here is a very interesting video about that done by the history channel:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Posted by: Yellowboy | April 6, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Q, I agree the possible eruption - arguably overdue - of the Yellowstone Volcano is real scary. There was an excellent documentary about this last week on the National Geographic TV Channel . Perhaps it will be re-broadcast again.

What's most scary is that there are signs, such as rising land above lava domes, that an eruption might not be too far in the future. The big difference, I believe, is that with climate change and solar storms there are in principle at least feasible approaches to avert, mitigate or adapt to consequences - though I'm skeptical there will be action before it's too late. If there were an eruption of Yellowstone of the magnitude that has occurred in the past, the only action possible would be to evacuate much of the North American landmass - and only if there were enough warning to do so. Even THE "big one", a devastating earthquake at LA of San Francisco would be small potatoes in comparison .

There's far to much to worry about in everyday existence (economy, war, etc) to have to think about such things - nor do I approve of unwarranted scaremongering. But,in regard do climate change, solar storms, and the Yellowstone volcano ignorance is NOT bliss.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | April 6, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse


Reid, has the report evoked any serious discussion of actions that must be undertaken to mitigate the consequences of a major solar storm?? Any interest on the Hill about policy addressing the concerns?? Will the May meeting get into this further?

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | April 6, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Bring it on! End the world now! Woo Hoo!!

Posted by: dem4life1 | April 6, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Wow - I was enjoying my turkey sandwich during my well deserved lunch break and I decided to read a fluff piece on my favorite weather blog. Boy, was I wrong! I feel like running home and kissing my wife and kids right now!

How feasible is something like this or a super volcano from ruining our lives? I mean, I just put down grass seed on my lawn and it cost me a lot of money...please tell me I didn't waste my time?

Posted by: authorofpoetry | April 6, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

Well, I guess this is as good an excuse as any to put off replacing the wallpaper in the downstairs bathroom.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | April 6, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang "The big difference, I believe, is that with climate change and solar storms there are in principle at least feasible approaches to avert, mitigate or adapt to consequences - though I'm skeptical there will be action before it's too late."

I do not fear that there will be any catastrophic rise in global temperatures. No one should. Dr. Hansen has been screaming "the sky is falling" for OVER 20 years now. It amazes me that people can believe his hypothesis, with what can only be described as a religious vigor, while blatantly ignoring any evidence that the hypothesis is wrong.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 6, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

..."My,my,my, folks, we have much bigger worries than this, last time I looked/read the United States has over 70 thousand NUKES, Soviet/Union/Russia has over 70 thousand NUKES, "World/folks/hanging/by/a/thread."

Posted by: ztcb41 | April 6, 2009 5:19 PM | Report abuse

Steve - thanks for the alert. Definitely a topic to stay up-to-date on.

On a somewhat related note, the Space Weather Prediction Center issues aurora forecasts that are interesting to monitor. During the solar flares of October 2003, the "auroral oval" was a deep red/orange and extended unusually far south above southern Canada/northern U.S. is a good website for anyone interested in the latest space weather happenings.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | April 6, 2009 6:46 PM | Report abuse

I saw the NewScientist article last week. Very interesting indeed. It makes you wonder if you should keep much more than a three day supply of food and water in your emergency kit.

Posted by: spgass1 | April 6, 2009 8:30 PM | Report abuse

hi mr.q! how the heck are ya? too bad our other thread "timed out" or something. i believe you were reading some articles marcusmarcus and maybe capitalclimate recommended. how's that going? you may address you answer to someone else if you like.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | April 6, 2009 10:42 PM | Report abuse


Thanks for your questions. I forwarded them on to a program officer who worked on the report who responded:

"While we understand that the report has generated discussion in certain government agencies, we do not have any details regarding those talks or whether any actions on the issues raised might be taken be taken in the U.S. We are unaware of any specific Hill interest at this time. There has been significant international interest in this report.

The Space Weather Enterprise Forum (SWEF) in May is not affiliated with our study in any way, and has a very different set of goals, but the organizers of that activity have looked closely at our report. We understand that the report will be discussed at that meeting and that they are likely to give further coverage to many of these issues. A number of interested government agencies will be represented as well, so you are likely to learn a good deal more at that time about what actions are under consideration with regard to space weather vulnerabilities."

Posted by: ReidDossinger | April 7, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Not to worry. The IPCC tells us the sun has NO impact on the earth's environment.

Posted by: nonein2008 | April 7, 2009 7:57 PM | Report abuse

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