So, do we really need to worry about a huge solar storm burning out the electrical
Masochists that we are here at the Telegraph, we love to shoot down our own stories,
and I was cracking my knuckles for this one.
It’s got all the ingredients – white-coated authority, grave warnings of impending doom,
exciting sciencey nuclear nemesis in space.
NASA! Solar flares! Planes falling out of the sky! Etc.
But I read the piece, and spoke to the reporter, and – while always remembering that
I am no more an astrophysicist than I am a black belt in tae kwon do – it sounded pretty solid.
Dr Richard Fisher, the director of Nasa’s Heliophysics division, is very clear in the quotes,
and our reporter, Andrew Hough, was very careful to check his facts with Dr Fisher before publishing.
It sounds like a lot of serious people think that this is a real danger.
As you can see in this newspaper report concerning Dr. Fisher of NASA's comments,
a lot of serious people think that this is a real danger.
Apparently the concern is the sun will reach a stage of its cycle when these
large events are more likely.
This might strike you as a bit strange, as you’ve probably heard (as have I) that the sun
has been especially active for the last half-century or so and is expected to die down
in the next couple of years.
who said “Solar activity has been abnormally high for the past 50 years, but the
extremely feeble start to the latest 11-year cycle suggests this activity is coming to
an end and things are going to be quiet on the Sun for quite a few years.
” Dr Ruth Bamford, a plasma physicist at the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory, agrees:
“The sun has been particularly quiet for the last few years in a protracted solar minimum.
It has just woken up, as it were, and started its usual 11-year cycle a bit later than most.”
SO WHAT'S GOING ON ?
So what’s going on?
Well, something similar has happened before.
He says that the “Carrington flare”, as it was known, “smothered two-thirds of the Earth’s
skies in a blood-red aurora a night later, and crippled all of global navigation and global
communication, such as it was at that time.
Compasses span uselessly and the telegraph network went down as phantom
electricity surged through the wire.”
The sun had indeed been running at a record high for the latter half of the 20th century,
and has now died down to its lowest level for a century.
But Dr Clark warns that “average levels of solar activity has fallen does not mean
that the Sun is immune from large flares or even giant ones.
Low average levels of activity may even promote the giant flares.
“Perhaps like earthquakes, when there are constant flares/tremors the energy
is dissipated evenly over long periods of time.
But in periods of quiet, that energy can build up and then suddenly be
released in a giant event.
This remains speculation, however.”
And while we cannot predict individual flares, Dr Clark says that the largest
flares are often shortly after the peak.
Of course, if a proper “Carrington event” happens again, it has the potential
to be far more problematic now than in 1859 when electric communication
was barely in its infancy.
Dr Clark says “There is absolutely no reason to believe that we are heading for
solar armageddon but sooner or later we should expect there to be another
Carrington event and that is what these scientists [at NASA] are trying to prevent.
Legislation in the US has just passed Congress to help harden the grid against solar flares.”
So – it’s a real thing, and we should be concerned.
But preventive measures can be taken – satellites can be sent offline during big flares,
power grids and communication networks can be shielded against electromagnetic
radiation and so on.
As Dr Bamford says: “The extreme events like the 1859 Carrington Event are 1-in-100-year
probabilities, about the same probability as a storm of the level of Katrina hitting New Orleans
– and New Orleans did not build their defenses to withstand the extreme-but-unlikely magnitude.
100 years isn’t that long.
“But the end of the world it is not.
Maybe as disruptive as an ash cloud, but not as protracted I’m sure.”
She gives examples of precautions, like a GPS backup system called eLoran,
or active mini-magnetosphere shielding for astronauts and satellites that
her team have designed.
Of course, if those precautions are taken, and actually work, and no damage is done,
then everyone will cry that it was all a big fuss over nothing, like they always do.
So the scientists can’t win, really.
But that’s just how it is.
Nasa Warns Solar Flares From
Huge Space Storm Will Cause Devastation
Exclusive: Britain could face widespread power blackouts and be left without
critical communication signals for long periods of time, after the earth is hit by a
once-in-a-generation “space storm”, Nasa has warned.
Image 1 of 5
National power grids could overheat and air travel severely disrupted while electronic items,
navigation devices and major satellites could stop working after the Sun reaches its
maximum power in a few years.
Senior space agency scientists believe the Earth will be hit with unprecedented levels
of magnetic energy from solar flares after the Sun wakes “from a deep slumber”
The Daily Telegraph can disclose.
In a new warning, Nasa said the super storm would hit like “a bolt of lightning” and
could cause catastrophic consequences for the world’s health, emergency services
and national security unless precautions are taken.
Scientists believe it could damage everything from emergency services’ systems,
hospital equipment, banking systems and air traffic control devices, through to “everyday”
items such as home computers, iPods and Sat Navs.
Due to humans’ heavy reliance on electronic devices, which are sensitive to magnetic energy,
the storm could leave a multi-billion pound damage bill and “potentially devastating”
problems for governments.
“We know it is coming but we don’t know how bad it is going to be,” Dr Richard Fisher,
the director of Nasa's Heliophysics division, said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph.
“It will disrupt communication devices such as satellites and car navigations, air travel,
the banking system, our computers, everything that is electronic.
It will cause major problems for the world.
“Large areas will be without electricity power and to repair that damage
will be hard as that takes time.”
Dr Fisher added: “Systems will just not work.
The flares change the magnetic field on the earth that is rapid and
like a lightning bolt. That is the solar affect.”
A “space weather” conference in Washington DC last week, attended by Nasa scientists,
policy-makers, researchers and government officials, was told of similar warnings.
While scientists have previously told of the dangers of the storm, Dr Fisher’s comments
are the most comprehensive warnings from Nasa to date.
Dr Fisher, 69, said the storm, which will cause the Sun to reach temperatures of more
than 10,000 F (5500C), occurred only a few times over a person’s life.
Every 22 years the Sun’s magnetic energy cycle peaks while the number of sun
spots – or flares – hits a maximum level every 11 years.
Dr Fisher, a Nasa scientist for 20 years, said these two events would combine in 2013
to produce huge levels of radiation.
He said large swathes of the world could face being without power for several months,
although he admitted that was unlikely.
A more likely scenario was that large areas, including northern Europe and Britain which
have “fragile” power grids, would be without power and access to electronic devices for
hours, possibly even days.
He said preparations were similar to those in a hurricane season, where authorities
knew a problem was imminent but did not know how serious it would be.
“I think the issue is now that modern society is so dependant on electronics,
mobile phones and satellites, much more so than the last time this occurred,” he said.
“There is a severe economic impact from this. We take it very seriously.
The economic impact could be like a large, major hurricane or storm.”
The National Academy of Sciences warned two years ago that power grids,
GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications
could “all be knocked out by intense solar activity”.
It warned a powerful solar storm could cause “twenty times more economic damage
than Hurricane Katrina”. That storm devastated New Orleans in 2005 and left an estimated
damage bill of more than $125bn (£85bn).
Dr Fisher said precautions could be taken including creating back up systems for
hospitals and power grids and allow development on satellite “safe modes”.
“If you know that a hazard is coming … and you have time enough to prepare and
take precautions, then you can avoid trouble,” he added.
His division, a department of the Science Mission Directorate at Nasa headquarters in
Washington DC, which investigates the Sun’s influence on the earth, uses dozens of
satellites to study the threat.
The government has said it was aware of the threat and “contingency plans were in place”
to cope with the fall out from such a storm.
These included allowing for certain transformers at the edge of the National Grid to
be temporarily switched off and to improve voltage levels throughout the network.
The National Risk Register, established in 2008 to identify different dangers to
Britain, also has “comprehensive” plans on how to handle a complete
outage of electricity supplies.
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