NASA: Solar flares from ‘huge space storm’ will cause devastation

Telegraph

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.

National power grids could overheat and air travel severely disrupted while electronic items, navigation devices and major satellites could stop working.

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” sometime around 2013, 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 dependent 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.

Watch Dr. Richard Fisher’s explanation here.

The Big Red Bear is Waking up and It Will Affect Us All

NASA Science

Coronal Mass Ejection

Coronal Mass Ejection

Earth and space are about to come into contact in a way that’s new to human history. To make preparations, authorities in Washington DC are holding a meeting: The Space Weather Enterprise Forum at the National Press Club on June 8th.

Richard Fisher, head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division, explains what it’s all about:

“The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we’re getting together to discuss.”

The National Academy of Sciences framed the problem two years ago in a landmark report entitled “Severe Space Weather Events—Societal and Economic Impacts.” It noted how people of the 21st-century rely on high-tech systems for the basics of daily life. Smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications can all be knocked out by intense solar activity. A century-class solar storm, the Academy warned, could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.

Much of the damage can be mitigated if managers know a storm is coming. Putting satellites in ‘safe mode’ and disconnecting transformers can protect these assets from damaging electrical surges. Preventative action, however, requires accurate forecasting—a job that has been assigned to NOAA.

“Space weather forecasting is still in its infancy, but we’re making rapid progress,” says Thomas Bogdan, director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Bogdan sees the collaboration between NASA and NOAA as key. “NASA’s fleet of heliophysics research spacecraft provides us with up-to-the-minute information about what’s happening on the sun. They are an important complement to our own GOES and POES satellites, which focus more on the near-Earth environment.”

Among dozens of NASA spacecraft, he notes three of special significance: STEREO, SDO and ACE.

STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) is a pair of spacecraft stationed on opposite sides of the sun with a combined view of 90% of the stellar surface. In the past, active sunspots could hide out on the sun’s farside, invisible from Earth, and then suddenly emerge over the limb spitting flares and CMEs. STEREO makes such surprise attacks impossible.

SDO (the Solar Dynamics Observatory) is the newest addition to NASA’s fleet. Just launched in February, it is able to photograph solar active regions with unprecedented spectral, temporal and spatial resolution. Researchers can now study eruptions in exquisite detail, raising hopes that they will learn how flares work and how to predict them. SDO also monitors the sun’s extreme UV output, which controls the response of Earth’s atmosphere to solar variability.

Bogdan’s favorite NASA satellite, however, is an old one: the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) launched in 1997. “Where would we be without it?” he wonders. ACE is a solar wind monitor. It sits upstream between the sun and Earth, detecting solar wind gusts, billion-ton CMEs, and radiation storms as much as 30 minutes before they hit our planet.

“ACE is our best early warning system,” says Bogdan. “It allows us to notify utility and satellite operators when a storm is about to hit.”

NASA spacecraft were not originally intended for operational forecasting—”but it turns out that our data have practical economic and civil uses,” notes Fisher. “This is a good example of space science supporting modern society.”

2010 marks the 4th year in a row that policymakers, researchers, legislators and reporters have gathered in Washington DC to share ideas about space weather. This year, forum organizers plan to sharpen the focus on critical infrastructure protection. The ultimate goal is to improve the nation’s ability to prepare, mitigate, and respond to potentially devastating space weather events.

“I believe we’re on the threshold of a new era in which space weather can be as influential in our daily lives as ordinary terrestrial weather.” Fisher concludes. “We take this very seriously indeed.”

For more information about the meeting, please visit the Space Weather Enterprise Forum home page at  http://www.nswp.gov/swef/swef_2010.html