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Posted at 12:45 PM ET, 03/ 9/2011

Space weather: Are we ready for a solar strike?

By Steve Tracton

A powerful solar eruption on Valentine's day (Feb. 14), the strongest solar flare in four or five years, led to to brilliant auroral displays and some disruptions in radio communications. Image captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Almost two years ago I asked the question, "Do Solar Storms Threaten Life as We Know it?" The answer then and even more so now could very well be a scary "yes" - even within the next few years - as an increase in solar activity coincides with the increasing vulnerability of technology-dependent societies to powerful solar storms.

Moreover, while one is not inevitable, should there be a solar strike capable of causing widespread blackouts and crippling disruptions of satellilte and radio communications, it's likely there would be little advance notice, and currently there is virtually no capability to shield much of the planet and virtually no planning on the books to recover from the potentially disastrous consequences.

This is the first part of a series of posts aimed at informing readers about the threat posed by space weather. Part 1 addresses the background and nature of the threat, including why ostensibly responsible government officials and agencies have only recently showed an active interest (most likely too little and too late). Part 2 discusses some of the basic elements of space weather via brief descriptions of various solar phenomena, including quantifiable indices (think tornado and hurricane categories) that describe their intensity and possible impacts on Earth, its atmosphere and near-space environment. And Part 3 looks more closely at the potential effects on life as we know it and what can and cannot be done to protect and prepare for a worst-case scenario.

Beyond this series, CWG will closely monitor space weather conditions from a variety of sources and provide close to real-time coverage of any prospective threats and official warnings (as we do for snowstorms).

Keep reading for the rest of Part 1 of this series...

The solar flare that erupted from the sun on Valentine's Day - the strongest solar eruption in four or five years - was a loud and clear wake-up call to the potentially dire threat of solar storms as we ramp up to the next peak in solar activity expected in the 2012-2013 timeframe (solar activity peaks approximately every 11 years). The resulting torrent of charged particles emanating from the sun arrived days later at the outer limits of Earth's atmosphere where it interacted with Earth's magnetic field, causing a geomagnetic storm and creating spectacular auroras.

Luckily, the only disruptive consequences were interruptions in radio communications in the western Pacific Ocean and parts of Asia, which caused airlines to reroute some polar flights to avoid radio outages. But experts say that more potent solar storms - the kind that may occur as solar activity peaks in the next few years - have the potential to wreak long-lasting havoc on electric power supply and communications infrastructure around the globe.

Coincidentally, this episode of space weather immediately preceded a Feb. 19 session (which I attended) on space weather at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Washington. The consensus of a panel of distinguished scientists was that the Valentine's Day event was minimal ("a solar hiccup") compared to the serious threat space weather is becoming. One need look no further than the title of the session (announced several months before the meeting) to get a sense of the degree of concern - "Space Weather: The Next Big Solar Storm Could Be a Global Katrina."

On the potential for a severe solar storm to take down telecommunications and power grids, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator Jane Lubchenco said, "This is not a matter of if; it's simply a matter of when and how big." Other experts warned that the United States must take the space storm threat seriously; adverse space weather is one of the principal threats to modern human technology; the world is overdue for a ferocious space storm that could knock out communications satellites, ground aircraft and trigger blackouts lasting months to years; and that no single or series of earthly weather phenomena, earthquakes, volcanoes or tsunamis - even if occurring simultaneously - would come close to the possible devastating effects worldwide of extreme space weather.

Furthermore, as the panelists discussed, such an event would come with very little advance warning, since forecasting of space weather is in its infancy, and currently specific events are only predicted once a solar storm is observed to be headed toward Earth and just a few days out. Predictions as to whether a major hit is more likely than not are limited to about 12 hours in advance (at most).

Perhaps the most important (and most disconcerting) news from the discussion was that the United States, Europe, and other technologically advanced societies are currently not prepared to significantly mitigate the effects of, or effectively recover from, the potentially drastic consequences of a "big one." This is despite a 2008 report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (which served as the basis for my post nearly two years ago) that emphasized the potential economic and societal impacts of the disruption of critical technological systems by severe space weather, including consequences "devastating for commerce, transportation, agriculture and food stocks, fuel and water supplies, human health and medical facilities, national security, and daily life in general."

Yet only recently have government officials and agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency within the Department of Homeland Security, appeared to take the threats of solar weather seriously. It seems that only when it became clear during the first half of 2010 that we were heading out of the record minimum in solar activity toward the next maximum did urgency begin to propagate from scientists to responsible government agencies. And only with the Valentine's Day wake-up call has the general public begun to take notice.

The final remarks at the AAAS panel included a plea to "please don't panic ... Please don't leave the room and tell everybody that space weather will kill us tomorrow." This drew a few laudable guffaws. Some press representatives with whom I talked with agreed that the apparent purpose of this message - beyond the concern of real overreaction - was to divert attention from the belatedness of interest on the part of government agencies and policymakers.

In a similar vein, at a recent briefing on the prospective NOAA FY2012 budget, Lubchenco strongly hinted at concern that mitigating and planning for a worst-case scenario during the coming solar maximum would come only from "experience" - i.e., after the fact. This too drew smiles and quiet laughs from several in the audience (including myself) in recognition that anything that could be done now is almost certainly far too little and too late.

Should we avoid disaster this time around in the solar cycle, perhaps advances in forecasting and more attention to preparation will put us in a better position next time (in 11 years or so).

Related article

By Steve Tracton  | March 9, 2011; 12:45 PM ET
Categories:  Latest, Technology, Tracton  
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This definitely doesn't make me feel all warm and fuzzy. I wonder if this is what the Mayans were warning us about?

Posted by: labs4m3 | March 9, 2011 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Well, this doesn't scare me at all. I hope that part 3 in this series will offer suggestions as to what we, the average people, can do if/when this occurs. Or are we grabbing our ankles and kissing our butts goodbye? Somehow I doubt it's the latter, but when I read this is worse than all natural disasters occurring at the same time...I'm nervous.

Posted by: camb67 | March 9, 2011 1:13 PM | Report abuse

I believe I posted yesterday...the geomagnetic storm/coronal mass ejection before the Civil War messed up the young national telegraph system, and would have far greater impact on today's power and communications grids.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | March 9, 2011 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Here's a chart of sunspot numbers: Is there any truth in the idea that solar storms can be more disruptive during a lower magnitude peak? I'm thinking of the greatest storm in this time period: 1859. 1972 is another example, but 1989 is a counterexample (came during a high magnitude peak). Here's a long list of historic storms:

Posted by: eric654 | March 9, 2011 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Hey Steve -

Maybe I'm missing something... but if this is a 11 year cycle, can't we look to what happened during the past few peaks? Yes, I realize we have more tech now than we did in 2000 and certainly than in 1989 and 1978, but that said, the most important systems in my mind - power generation, automobiles, transportation infrastructure, landline communications - have existed in some form for much longer than that.

So for these critical systems at least, can't we look to prior solar maxima? Or is there some reason to believe this solar maximum will be more severe than the last several?

Posted by: jahutch | March 9, 2011 2:41 PM | Report abuse

"That was last week my friend. For the first time, the solar blast from the sun is causing a physical reaction!"

*Adrian stares at the screen before he's walked over to the boiling water in the lab*

Let's just hope any scientists in the area see THIS come true!

Posted by: cbmuzik | March 9, 2011 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Don't worry, am sure PEPCO has a plan to deal with this doomsday scenario.

Posted by: Axel2 | March 9, 2011 3:19 PM | Report abuse


Don't say that too loud around here. You may get a new wave of angry customers! lol...

Posted by: cbmuzik | March 9, 2011 3:24 PM | Report abuse


I believe Steve is on a plane right now, but I'm sure he'll answer you later. I think he'll tell you that there is reason to believe this peak has the potential to be worse than some prior but hang tight...

Posted by: Jason-CapitalWeatherGang | March 9, 2011 4:08 PM | Report abuse

so, this is probably a stupid question, but i'll just go ahead and ask it: can things be turned off to protect from damage from the plasma part of the "storm"? would my laptop be ruined if turned off and unplugged? as for power grids, could they all be "turned off" somehow? or have certain parts disconnected from other parts? would cell phones themselves be ruined, or the satellites etc... they depend on?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | March 9, 2011 4:40 PM | Report abuse

Let's hope that the remaining parts of this series are a little more informative. This part was primarily fact-free sensationalism. I wouldn't argue that solar storms don't have the potential to disrupt telecommunications and other systems, possibly severly. But throwing around phrases like "A Global Katrina" doesn't add anything to the conversation. It's just empty hype and I've come to expect better from CWG.

Posted by: ElJocko | March 9, 2011 5:02 PM | Report abuse


Could see how you might read it that way, but this was an intended as an appetizer. Steve's got a lot of great material to share in the next pieces. Thanks for your feedback.

Posted by: Jason-CapitalWeatherGang | March 9, 2011 5:20 PM | Report abuse

+1 for ElJocko

Steve ---

IIRC, solar storms are much more likely to affect areas near the poles. Indeed, there were solar related disruptions in Quebec in 1989, which may have extended down to northern New England. Life went on.

It would have been better to start from an actual case--what happened, how they recovered, what they learned---than lead off with formless hypotheticals. You can still scare people by noting it a completely different world now from 1989 because we're much more technology dependent. In 1989, a 80MB hard drive was big; the next big thing was the "GUI" (graphical user interface); html wasn't invented yet; IBM was feared; cellphones were unusual because they were expensive and kids still talked on the telephone! I hope you will take this approach further in the series.

Posted by: kperl | March 9, 2011 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Hi folks, I'm back on line but with a slow connection - will try to briefly answer questions.

Indeed, the tremendous solar storms in 1859 are believed to have generated the largest magnetic storms on record. The event is often referred to as the Carrington event after the astronomer who observed it. As I described in "Do Solar Storms Threaten Life as We Know it?" referred to above, "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."

A massive solar storm can occur just about anytime in the solar cycle, but more likely on the rise to, at, and fall from the solar max. As I'll describe in Part 2, for a solar event to significantly affect the terrestrial environment - down here where we all live - is dependent upon the intensity of the storm, whether the flow of charge particles ("plasma") is directed towards the earth and the details of the interactions between the magnetic fields of the plasma flow and earth. Think of it like being more likely to have a Snomaggedon during an El NIno winter than LA Nina, but we can still have big snowstorms during LaNina if the details of track, storm intensity, and phasing (interaction of atmospheric features) are aligned (as snow lovers want to see.)

You'll find more detail in my first post two years ago, which will be updated in subsequent parts of this series, including a listing of source material. If you re-read this post you'll see the terminology, "Global Katrina .." was the name given to the AAAS session and in fact in the NRC report linked above. The sensationalism you reefer to is just my reporting of, for example, the NRC report, Space Weather meetings, and officials as reported above.

Posted by: ensemblemean | March 9, 2011 6:00 PM | Report abuse

ensemblemean is me, SteveT. Still cannot find why this occasionally happens

Posted by: ensemblemean | March 9, 2011 6:02 PM | Report abuse

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