Could Solar Storms Be The Next
Major Disaster To Hit Earth?
A massive solar storm could leave millions of people around the
world without electricity, running water, or phone service, government
That was their conclusion after participating in a tabletop exercise
that looked at what might happen today if the Earth were struck
by a solar storm as intense as the huge storms that occurred in
1921 and 1859.
Solar storms happen when an eruption or explosion on the surface
of the sun sends radiation or electrically charged particles toward
Earth. Minor storms are common and can light up the Earth's Northern
skies and interfere with radio signals.
Every few decades, though, the sun experiences a particularly
large storm. These can release as much energy as 1 billion hydrogen
How Well Can We Weather The Solar Storm?
The exercise, held in Boulder, Colorado, was intended to investigate
"what we think could be close to a worst-case scenario,"
says Tom Bogdan, who directs the Space Weather Prediction Center
in Boulder. The Center is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
"It's important to understand that, along with other types
of natural hazards, (solar) storms can cause impacts," says
Craig Fugate, Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA), who also took part in the tabletop exercise.
Bogdan and Fugate say that eventually there will be another storm
as big as the ones in 1921 and 1859 a sort of solar Katrina.
But the impact is likely to be far worse than in previous solar
storms because of our growing dependence on satellites and other
electronic devices that are vulnerable to electromagnetic radiation.
In the tabletop exercise, the first sign of trouble came when
radiation began disrupting radio signals and GPS devices, Bogdan
Ten or 20 minutes later electrically charged particles "basically
took out" most of the commercial satellites that transmit
telephone conversations, TV shows and huge amounts of data we
depend on in our daily lives, Bogdan says.
"When you go into a gas station and put your credit card
in and get some gas," he says, "that's a satellite transaction."
Disabled Satellites Are Just The Beginning
The worst damage came nearly a day later, when the solar storm
began to induce electrical currents in high voltage power lines.
The currents were strong enough to destroy transformers around
the globe," Bogdan says, leaving millions of people in northern
latitudes without power.
Without electricity, many people also lost running water, heat,
air conditioning and phone service. And places like hospitals
had to rely on emergency generators with fuel for only two or
three days, Bogdan says.
In many ways, the impact of a major solar storm resembles that
of a hurricane or an earthquake, says Fugate.
But a solar Katrina would cause damage in a much larger area
than any natural disaster, Fugate says. For example, power could
be knocked out almost simultaneously in countries from Sweden
to Canada and the U.S., he says. So a lot more people in a lot
more places would need help.
Individuals don't need to make any special preparation for a
solar storm, Fugate says. The standard emergency kit of water
and food and first aid supplies will work just fine.
"If you've got your family disaster plan together, you've
taken the steps, whether it be a space storm, whether it be a
system failure, whether it be another natural hazard that knocks
the power out," Fugate says.
March 1, 2010