Earth is overdue a solar storm as the sun enters its most active period
The world is overdue a ferocious ‘space storm’ that could knock out communications satellites, ground aircraft and trigger blackouts – causing hundreds of billions of pounds of damage, scientists say.
Astronomers today warned that mankind is now more vulnerable to a major solar storm than at any time in history – and that the planet should prepare for a global 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 last week 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.
Professor Sir John Beddington, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said: ‘The issue of space weather has got to be taken seriously. We’ve had a relatively quiet period of space weather – but we can’t expect that quiet period to continue.
‘At the same time over that period the potential vulnerability of our systems has increased dramatically, whether it is the smart grid in our electricity systems or the ubiquitous use of GPS in just about everything we use these days.
‘The situation has changed. We need to be thinking about the ability both to categorise and explain and give early warning when particular types of space weather are likely to occur.’
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.
Jane Lubchenco, head of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said: ‘This is not a matter of if, it is simply a matter of when and how big.
‘The last time we had a maximum in the solar cycle, about 10 years ago, the world was a very different place. Cell phones are now ubiquitous; they were certainly around but we didn’t rely on them for so many different things.
‘Many things that we take for granted today are so much more prone to the process of space weather than was the case in the last solar maximum.’
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.