Solar storm could cause planetary disaster at any time, warn scientists
Daily Mail, U.K.
By Claire Bates
Last updated at 1:11 PM on 26th March 2009
The Government was urged today to make contingency plans for a freak solar flare that
could 'knock out' the National Grid and create severe water and food shortages.
Labour former minister Graham Stringer said Britain should be prepared for a repeat of
the solar storm of 1859, which hit Earth and paralysed much of the telegraph system.
In a Commons motion, Mr Stringer said such an event could now 'knock out the National
Grid, which would lead to a loss of water supply, transport and food and therefore create
a national emergency'.
The so-called 'Carrington event' was a magnetic storm that struck Earth in 1859 and
caused the failure of telegraph systems all over Europe and North America. Auroras
were reportedly seen as far south as Florida.
Now a report funded by NASA claims such a storm today would lead to 'planetary
The NASA study released this January outlined the devastating impact it would have. For
instance it could leave half of the US without power within 90 seconds, without coal after
30 days and would take the country a decade to recover.
Such a scenario would also cost an estimated £1.5trillion - and that would just be in the
Science fiction? Not according to Mike Hapgood who chairs the European Space
Agency's space weather team.
'I don't think the NASA report is scaremongering,' he told the New Scientist.
'This is a fair and balanced report.'
Our 21st century way of life relies heavily on technology, but scientists say this has left
society at risk of a 'planetary disaster.'
Unlike many recent natural disasters, a huge solar flare would cause the greatest
suffering in developed countries.
Plasma balls blasting out from the surface of the sun could wipe out our modern
electricity grids, which would draw the energy to them like antennas and quickly overload.
This would have a knock on effect on many of the systems that support our lives,
including water and sewage treatment, medicine cooling, supermarket delivery, power
station controls and financial markets.
To rebuild the grid, the melted transformer hubs would need to be replaced but new
ones take up to a year to make to order.
At present NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) is the most important indicator
of incoming space weather. It can give 15 to 45 minutes warning of geomagnetic storms
and power companies need 15 minutes to prepare systems for a critical event.
However, ACE is 11 years old and already operating beyond its planned lifespanm with
no planned replacement.
'We will largely lose the early warning capability,' Mr Hapgood said.
As well as this, the flare emitted during the Carrington event travelled so fast it took less
than 15 minutes to reach Earth anyway.
The NASA report was released to spark debate and chief author Daniel Baker from the
University of Colorado hopes it will push decision-makers into action.
'It takes alot of effort to educate policy-makers, and that is especially true with these
low-frequency events,' he said.
'But we are moving closer and closer to the edge of a possible disaster.'
For further information visit www.newscientist.com
The sun-orbiting SOHO spacecraft pictured the
active solar surface using ultra-violet light