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June 17, 2011
Solar activity peaks every decade or so, and we're entering a period – 2012-2014 – in which the sun is "waking up," according to NASA.
Solar storms occur when an eruption or explosion on the sun's surface propels high-energy sunlight, radiation or a cloud of electrically-charged particles towards our planet. A large storm can release as much energy as 1 billion hydrogen bombs.
And solar activity can directly affect life on Earth. Take 1859, for example, when a solar flare caused a geomagnetic storm, wiping out telegraph poles and sparking multiple fires in the United States and Europe. The Northern Lights were also observed as far south as Cuba and Hawaii. During another period of solar maximum in 1989, six million people in Quebec were left without power for approximately nine hours.
Photo Credit: NASA
According to NASA, solar activity has a regular cycle, peaking every 11 years or so. But they say that no special risk is associated with this next period of activity, that it's "no different than previous cycles throughout history."
But this predicted peak of activity sparks worry among many people... Our modern, technological world is more sensitive to geomagnetic storms than in was in 1859. If a solar storm like that the one in 1859 occurred again today, what would happen?
The National Academy of Sciences recently warned that a "century-class solar storm could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina." Our communications systems – air travel, financial services, GPS navigations, Smart power grids and emergency radio – would be at risk. Consider simple transactions (like using a credit card at a gas station), which go through a GPS satellite. NPR reported that a solar storm could cause millions of people to be without electricity, running water or phone service. Add to that heat and air conditioning. And not just for hours or days... but potentially months or years. And the financial effects – in the trillions of dollars – would be devastating.
But experts insist there's no need to panic. "We need to pay attention to space weather," NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco said at the AAAS meeting. "The watchword is, predict and prepare."
Possible disaster plans include improving solar storm predictions in order to provide more accurate forecasting. Then, even with just a few hours' notice, power companies can safeguard expensive transformers by taking them 'offline' before the storm strikes. NASA talks of switching satellites into safe mode and turning off transformers.