If you’ve had your fill of apocalyptic scenarios, earthquakes, volcanoes and global warming, here comes a new threat which may wipe out the world in 2013.
Imagine a scene from any of Hollywood’s disaster films. An eerie scene where mobile phones go on the blink, GPS is knocked out, TVs go blank and the world is plunged into chaos.
Looks like disaster flicks aren’t too removed from reality since all this could well be the potential result of a gigantic solar storm, according to a new report by NASA. The report, a warning, says Earth and space are coming together in a way that’s new to human history.
A solar storm, which is essentially violent eruptions in the sun, can eject destructive radiation and charged particles into space. These are closely connected to magnetic fields – which are hazardous for satellites and space stations.
There are reports of a geomagnetic storm sparked by a huge solar flare that swept over the Earth in 1859. Telegraph wires shorted out and set houses on fire. A brilliant aurora was seen in Hawaii—so bright that “people could read newspapers by red and green glow.” Scientists predict that in May 2013, the sun’s solar cycle will peak at about the same level as in 1859.
High-tech systems are critical for life as we know it today. Everything that we depend on and take for granted – air travel, GPS navigation, banking services (even a credit card transaction uses a satellite) and emergency radio communications – can all be knocked out by intense solar activity.
To get an idea of scale, a massive solar storm could result in 20 times more damage than the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina which hit south-eastern US in August 2005. The storm killed 1,800 people and caused damages worth $81 billion.
Some good news is that some of the damage and destruction can be avoided with warning of an impending solar storm. There is technology to put satellites in ‘safe mode’ and disconnect transformers to protect them from destructive electrical surges.
The task of accurately forecasting a solar storm lies with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the US. “Space weather forecasting is still in its infancy, but we’re making rapid progress,” said Thomas Bogdan, director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado.
The key for Bogdan lies in NASA and NOAA collaborating. “NASA’s fleet of heliophysics research spacecraft provides us with up-to-the-minute information about what’s happening on the sun. They are an important complement to our own GOES and POES satellites, which focus more on the near-Earth environment.”
Says Bogdon, “I believe we’re on the threshold of a new era in which space weather can be as influential in our daily lives as ordinary terrestrial weather.”