NOAA scientists are on high alert as the Sun enters a period of solar maximum over the next 14 months during which we will see a burst of activity that could have catastrophic effects on global power grids and communications systems.
A solar maximum is a normal period of intense or heightened solar activity in the 11 year solar cycle of the Sun. During a solar maximum, large numbers of sunspots appear and the Sun's power output increases with a significant upsurge in the incidence and power of solar flares. One of the best known examples of a major solar flare that affected communications system was the solar storm of 1859, known as the Carrington Event, a major solar eruption that struck the Earth with such intensity that the northern lights could be seen as far south as Rome, approximately 42° north of the equator.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists say they are on high alert for massive electromagnetic energy bursts from the Sun during the 2013 solar maximum that could inflict damage on power grids and communications systems.
According to scientists, if the Earth is hit by a major solar flare during the solar maximum it could result in widespread power outage, ground air traffic, disable military and civilian satellite communications.
The Blaze reports that Tom Bogdan, director of NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, says the agency is monitoring the situation as closely as possible. He said: “We now know how powerful space weather can be and how events that begin on the surface of the Sun can end up wreaking havoc here on Earth. This is why NOAA has a Space Weather Prediction Center — to forecast when space weather is coming our way, so we can avoid or mitigate damages.”
According to The Blaze, a 2008 study estimated the cost of damage due to a direct hit by a solar flare at $1-2 trillion, compared to Hurricane Katrina that cost $125 billion. The massive cost arises from the fact that in the early 21st century, our daily lives are closely tied to the continued function of power and satellite systems. According to Dr Michio Kaku, a member of the American Physical Society (APS), “Solar flares are like bullets fired into space, so far we've dodged the bullets.”
Scientists point to "The Carrington Event," named after British astronomer Richard Carrington, who observed it. The Carrington Event was a major solar flare that hit the Earth in 1859, shortly after the Sun reached solar maximum at a time in which the telegraph provided the only advanced global communication system. According NOAA, the surge of geomagnetic storm that hit the Earth after the solar eruption disrupted telegraph systems worldwide. The flare was accompanied by a coronal mass ejection (CME) that sent out charged particles which reached the atmosphere only 18 hours after the ejection.
According to physicist John Millis, in the event of a major solar flare that hits the Earth directly during the 2013 solar maximum, the sudden flux in charged particles would have an adverse effect on our electrical systems, including the entire grid system. According to Millis, the effect of a major solar flare could be devastating and it could take months to repair. That could result in a power outage lasting several months.
Dr Kaku warned that there is need to prepare for a major solar flare that could hit global communication and power systems. According to APS experts, an investment of $300 million is sufficient to insulate the US power infrastructure and protect it from the effect of a major flare.
The Blaze reports that last year, a group of physicists from the APS spoke to the Congress, proposing measures to insulate the US power grid, but their proposal was rejected.
Some of the scientists even speculated that a large solar hit could lead to societal breakdown. Food and medicine in short supply could lead to food riots within days of an outage.