Scientist warns of poor preparation for solar storms
By Lee Ji-eun
The world needs to be more prepared for massive solar storms, which can destroy technology-dependent society, a space and astronomy news website Space.com reported Thursday, quoting a prominent researcher.
Powerful blasts from the sun could interrupt power grids and satellite navigation systems. But at the moment our ability to predict these events and guard against the worst consequences is lacking, said Mike Hapgood of the British research and technology agency RAL Space in the latest issue of the scientific journal Nature.
Solar storms, so-called coronal mass ejections (CME), are huge clouds of charged solar plasma that can inject a large amount of energy into the Earth’s magnetic field at speeds of 5 million kilometers per hour. And they could disrupt GPS signals, radio communications and power grids for days, according to the researcher.
Hapgood pointed out that CMEs are able to bring much greater damage than before. For example, a CME in Quebec, Canada, caused a power blackout with a loss of $2 billion. And a huge ejection that slammed into Earth in 1859, now known as the “Carrington event,” named for British astronomer Richard Christopher Carrington, set off fires in telegraph offices.
But he noted that the world was not technologically advanced enough yet to suffer worse consequences.
“If we had a repeat of the Carrington event, I would expect several days of economic and social disaster as many critical technology systems failed e.g., localized power grid failures in many countries, widespread loss of GPS signals for navigation and timing, disruption of communication systems, shutdown of long-haul aviation,” Hapgood forecast. He added that these will have a long-term impact on any recovery.
“What scares me is the possibility that this recovery could take a long time in many parts of the world,” he said. “We have become much more dependent on technology to sustain our everyday lives: e.g., electricity to pump clean water to our homes and remove sewage, supply chains to feed us, ATMs and retail card readers to provide money for everyday shopping.” He stressed that people don’t have a solution to cope with the simultaneous disruption of a huge range of systems.
And space weather forecasting ability, while improving, is still lacking, the scientist said.
The U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) can currently provide warnings of strong geomagnetic storms 10 to 60 minutes in advance with about 50 percent accuracy, Hapgood said. That’s pretty tough for power companies to take protective measures.
SWPC scientists and other space-weather forecasters generally rely on observations of approaching CMEs made by a handful of spacecraft such as NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), as well as the NASA/European Space Agency Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). But they need to be upgraded as ACE was launched in 1997, SOHO in 1995 and the twin STEREO craft in 2006, Hapgood told SPACE.com.
"We really need to replace those spacecraft and their instruments that monitor CMEs and, if possible, upgrade the instrument so they are optimized for space weather monitoring essentially to pull out the most critical data and get it back to Earth as soon as possible," he said.
Hapgood is calling for powerful geomagnetic storms to be regarded as natural hazards similar to big earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. And emphasizes that power, aviation and finance, which depends on precise GPS timestamps for automatic trading ― should take a longer view and guard against the huge storm that comes along just once every 1,000 years or so.