A recently released NASA report warns that the U.S. has forgotten the power of the sun, creating a technological society susceptible like never before to massive infrastructure damage from solar storms.
The study, carried out for NASA by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, doesn’t predict some new solar or environmental disaster. Instead, it studies the effects of the sun’s normal, cyclical behavior upon modern technology.
Professor Daniel Baker is director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado and chaired the panel that prepared the report.
“Whether it is terrestrial catastrophes or extreme space weather incidents,” writes Baker in a statement released with the report, “the results can be devastating to modern societies that depend in a myriad of ways on advanced technological systems.”
According to the report, the U.S. has grown so dependent on modern technologies without respect of what the sun can and has done, that it’s risking major communications, finance, transportation, government and even emergency services meltdowns.
And if one of the sun’s periodic, catastrophic storms hits Earth the way Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. coastline, the report estimates that damages from the “space weather Katrina” could top $1 or $2 trillion.
The sun is currently near minimum on its 11-year activity cycle, the report explains, but is expected to produce solar storms that will increase in intensity and frequency as it approaches peak activity levels in 2012.
The NASA report warns that if the sun’s activity over the next few years flares to the level of the May 1921 “superstorm” or the so-called Carrington event of 1859, a “perfect storm” that Space.com called “the most powerful onslaught of solar energy in recorded history,” the U.S. may not be equipped to handle the damages.
“The impacts of severe space weather events,” the report states, “can go beyond disruption of existing technical systems and lead to short-term, as well as to long-term collateral socioeconomic disruptions.”
The report listed possible cascading effects of a major solar storm as “disruption of the transportation, communication, banking and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure, and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of a lack of refrigeration.”
In addition, the researchers warn, “Emergency services would be strained, and command and control might be lost.”
Solar storm history
The impact of the solar storms is widely, and even recently, recorded.
In March 1989, a geomagnetic storm took down the power grid over much of Quebec, leaving millions of Canadians without power for hours.
In January 1994, the NASA report records, Canada’s $290 million Anik E2 telecommunications satellite was knocked out by a solar storm, and it took six months and $50-70 million to get it back in operation.
One of the most dangerous contributors to solar storms is a coronal mass ejection, an expanding cloud of charged particles belched from the sun and sailing through space at supersonic speeds. According to a video on Space.com, a CME impacted Earth in 1998, knocking a communications satellite out of space to crash in the middle of the U.S. and disrupting nearly every pager signal in the country.
Coronal mass ejections hit the Earth relatively routinely. But in 1859, a CME of extreme intensity, exceptionally high speed and magnetic fields opposite Earth’s blasted the planet. The resulting “perfect storm” temporarily doubled the light of the sun, caused colorful aurora – normally only visible in the polar regions – to be seen as far south as Hawaii and shorted out telegraph wires, starting fires across the U.S. and Europe.
In 1859, however, the telegraph was only 15 years old. There was no satellite or television technology, no power grids, no automated teller machines and no global positioning systems helping direct traffic on land, air and sea.
“A contemporary repetition of the  event,” the NASA report concludes, “would cause significantly more extensive (and possibly catastrophic) social and economic disruptions.”
What can be done
Some technologies, particularly those based on satellites such as global positioning systems, have been combating solar storms and the occasional CME for years, working on backup solutions and bypass plans.
The report further mentions technological solutions to many of the possible consequences of a major solar storm, but warns that more work needs to be done to implement safeguards against another storm like those seen in 1921 and 1859.
“A catastrophic failure of commercial and government infrastructure in space and on the ground can be mitigated through raising public awareness, improving vulnerable infrastructure and developing advanced forecasting capabilities,” the report states. “Without preventive actions or plans, the trend of increased dependency on modern space-weather sensitive assets could make society more vulnerable in the future.”
Richard Fisher, head of NASA’s heliophysics division added that more research is also needed.
“To mitigate possible public safety issues,” Fisher said, “it is vital that we better understand extreme space weather events caused by the sun’s activity.”
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