Late last week, the federal government released a historic report dealing with space weather. Titled, Space Weather Observing Systems: Current Capabilities and Requirements for the Next Decade, the report deals with the government’s ability to forecast potentially harmful solar storms and its powers to mitigate a storm’s impact for us here on Earth. The report as authored by the National Space Weather Program Council.
So, why should we care?
A solar storm could very well change our way of life, that is the warning from scientists as recent solar activity has many concerned that the life-giving Sun could be gearing up for a killer storm. No, the storm will not be at risk for killing humans (hopefully!), but it may pose a serious risk to satellites, which play a larger part of modern life than many people appreciate.
As the Sun becomes more active as it nears solar maximum, the chances for Earthly impacts of solar storms increases dramatically. When the highly-charged particles of the solar wind hit our upper atmosphere, they interact with Earth’s magnetic field, causing disruptions in electronic communications and power grids. One job for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is to keep an eye on solar weather which, NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco warns, could have dire effects for us on Earth.
So, if the Sun has always gone through an 11-year cycle of activity, why all the panic now?
Answer: the concern comes from our way of life. When the Sun was at its last peak period in the early 2000s, we were nowhere near as reliant on satellites as we are today. Think back to 2001, far fewer people had a cellphone in their pocket, a GPS unit in their car, and satellite TV in their house. Now, while losing anyone of these conveniences (imagine having to actually read a map!) would be a minor irritation, the fact that solar storms can damage power grids can have massive implications. In March 1989 (during the Sun’s maximum 2 cycles ago) a massive solar storm knocked out power over a large section of Canada. The frightening fact, in the larger scheme of things, this stormwasn’t that big, certainly not the perfect solar super storm. Worst case scenario: if transformers and capacitors were really fried, power could be out for months, essentially transporting us back to the pre-industrial age.
Hopefully, neither you nor a relative will be in a hospital if that ever happens. Oh, yes, when all is said and done, the cost of such a storm could come to $2 trillion.
The good news is that, while our technology is making us more susceptible to the impact of solar activity, it can also help prevent the problem. As scientists learn more about the solar wind and what it can do, more protections can be built-in to our electronics to better ensure that they don’t get fried by a powerful blast of solar energy.
Either way, solar maximum is rapidly approaching, which means that we had better prepare, anyway.
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