UK Daily Mail
May 19, 2011
Solar storms could have ‘devastating effects’ on human technology when they hit a peak in two years’ time, a leading scientist has warned.
U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration assistant secretary Kathryn Sullivan said the storms pose a growing threat to critical infrastructure such as satellite communications, navigation systems and electrical transmission equipment.
Solar storms release particles that can temporarily disable or permanently destroy fragile computer circuits.
Dr Sullivan, a former Nasa astronaut who in 1984 became the first woman to walk in space, yesterday told a UN weather conference in Geneva that ‘it is not a question of if, but really a matter of when a major solar event could hit our planet’.
She is not the only expert to issue a warning about the threat posed by solar storms.
In February, astronomers warned that mankind is now more vulnerable to such an event than at any time in history – and that the planet should prepare for a global Hurricane Katrina-style disaster.
A massive eruption of the sun would save waves of radiation and charged particles to Earth, damaging the satellite systems used for synchronising computers, airline navigation and phone networks.
If the storm is powerful enough it could even crash stock markets and cause power cuts that last weeks or months, experts told the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The chances of a disruption from space are getting stronger because the sun is entering the most active period of its 11 to 12-year natural cycle.
The world got a taster of the sun’s explosive power in February when the strongest solar eruption in five years sent a torrent of charged plasma hurtling towards the world at 580 miles per second.
The storm created spectacular aurorae and disrupted radio communications.
Solar storms are caused by massive explosions on the sun.
The explosions release waves of X-rays and ultraviolet radiation which smash into the Earth within minutes, disrupting radio signals and damaging the electronics of satellites.
They are followed ten to 20 minutes later by a burst of energetic particles which cause even more havoc with satellites – and then 15 to 30 hours later by supercharged plasma which collides with Earth’s magnetic field.
The plasma create the aurora – or Northern Lights – and can induce electrical currents in power lines and cables.
The sun goes through a regular activity cycle about 11 years long on average. The last solar maximum occurred in 2001. Its latest minimum was particularly weak and long lasting.
Space storms are not new. The first major solar flare was recorded by British astronomer Richard Carrington in 1859.
Other solar geomagnetic storms have been observed in recent decades. One huge solar flare in 1972 cut off long-distance telephone communication in the mid-western state of Illinois, Nasa said.
Another similar flare in 1989 ‘provoked geomagnetic storms that disrupted electric power transmission’ and caused blackouts across the Canadian province of Quebec, the U.S. space agency said.