Monday, 21 February 2011

The Solar Storm

Scientists warn of $2,000bn solar 'Katrina'
Sun, 20 Feb 2011 12:39:50 -0800

Scientists warn of $2,000bn solar 'Katrina'

By Clive Cookson in Washington

Published: February 20 2011 17:50 | Last updated: February 20 2011 17:50

The sun is waking up from a long quiet spell. Last week it sent out the
strongest flare for four years - and scientists are warning that earth
should prepare for an intense electromagnetic storm that, in the worst case,
could be a "global Katrina" costing the world economy $2,000bn.

Senior officials responsible for policy on solar storms - also known as
space weather - in the US, UK and Sweden urged more preparedness at the
annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in

"We have to take the issue of space weather seriously," said Sir John
Beddington, UK chief scientist. "The sun is coming out of a quiet period,
and our vulnerability has increased since the last solar maximum [around

"Predict and prepare should be the watchwords," agreed Jane Lubchenco, head
of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "So much more of
our technology is vulnerable than it was 10 years ago."

A solar storm starts with an eruption of super-hot gas travelling out from
the sun at speeds of up to 5m miles an hour. Electrically charged particles
hit earth's atmosphere 20 to 30 hours later, causing electromagnetic havoc.

Last week's solar storm may have been the biggest since 2007, but it was
relatively small in historical terms.

It caused some radio communications problems and minor disruption of civil
aviation as airlines routed flights away from the polar regions, said Dr

A more extreme storm can shut down communications satellites for many hours
- or even cause permanent damage to their components. On the ground, the
intense magnetic fluctuations can induce surges in power lines, leading to
grid failures such as the one that blacked out the whole of Quebec in 1989.

The 11-year cycle of solar activity is quite variable and the present one is
running late, with the next maximum expected in 2013.

The peak was not expected to be very strong but that should not cause
complacency, said Tom Bogdan, director of the US Space Weather Prediction

The most intense solar storm on record, which ruined much of the world's
newly installed telegraph network in 1859, took place during an otherwise
weak cycle. An 1859-type storm today could knock out the world's
information, communications and electricity distribution systems, at a cost
estimated by the US government at $2,000bn.

In terms of terrestrial vulnerability, the biggest change since the 2000
peak is that the world has become more dependent on global positioning
system satellites - and not just for navigation. The world's mobile phone
networks depend on ultra-precise GPS time signals for their co-ordination.

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