The Sun is getting ready for her close up.
Power grids, communications, and satellites could be knocked out by a massive solar storm in the next two years, scientists warn. Experts say the sun is reaching a peak in its 10-year activity cycle, putting the Earth at greater risk from solar storms.
A report estimated that about 365 high-voltage transformers in the continental United States are at risk of failure or permanent damage requiring replacement in the event of a solar superstorm, according to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Even a few hundred destroyed transformers could disable the entire interconnected system and replacing even one of these transformers can take up to 2 years.
Mike Hapgood, a space weather specialist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Didcot, Oxfordshire, said: "Governments are taking it very seriously. These things may be very rare but when they happen, the consequences can be catastrophic."
He warned that solar storms are increasingly being put on national risk registers used for disaster planning, alongside other events like tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. There is 12% chance of a major solar storm every decade, making them a roughly one-in-100-year event. The last major storm was more than 150 years ago. So as you can see we are long overdue.
The threat comes from magnetically-charged plasma thrown out by the sun in coronal mass ejections. Like vast bubbles bursting off the sun's surface, they send millions of tons of gas racing through space that can consume the Earth with as little as one day's warning. They trigger geomagnetic storms which can literally melt expensive transformers in national power grids. Satellites can be damaged or destroyed and radio communications could be knocked out.
Teams of scientists in North America and Europe monitor the sun and issue warnings to governments, power companies and airline operators. In 1989, a solar storm was blamed for taking out the entire power network in Quebec, Canada, which left millions without electricity for nine hours. The largest was known as the Carrington event in 1859, when British astronomer Richard Carrington observed a large solar eruption that took just 17 hours to reach the Earth's atmosphere. It caused the aurora borealis - or Northern Lights - to be seen as far south as the Caribbean.
Power blackouts can cause chaos, as they did briefly in India when more than 600 million people lost electricity for hours on two consecutive days in July. However, the kind of long-duration outage that might happen in the case of a massive solar storm would have more profound and costly effects.
The academy's report noted that replacements for transformers might not be available for a year or more, and the cost of damage in the first year after a storm could be as high as $2 trillion. The most vulnerable areas are the eastern one-third of the country, from the Midwest to the East Coast, and the Northwest, as far east as Montana and Wyoming and as far south as California. The national grid was built over decades to get energy at the lowest price from where it is generated to where it is used. A solar superstorm has the capacity to bring that network down, the academy's report said.
"Historically large storms have a potential to cause power grid blackouts and transformer damage of unprecedented proportions, long-term blackouts and lengthy restoration times, and chronic shortages for multiple years are possible," the report said.
Richard Andres, an energy and environmental security expert at the military's National Defense University, is helping to coordinate an inter-agency group to deal with the problem. The failure of the national power grid could be disastrous, he said.
In a worst-case scenario, commerce would almost instantly cease, he said, noting he was speaking for himself and not the U.S. government. Water and fuel, which depend on electric pumps, would stop flowing in most cities within hours, modern communications would end and mechanized transport would stall. Even backup generators for hospitals, the military, and other critical facilities would be vulnerable if they depended on diesel or natural gas, which also rely on pipelines for resupply. The report said more than 130 million people in the United States could be affected and that the death toll would run into the millions in the worst-case scenario.
Other countries besides the United States would feel the impact of a solar superstorm if it hit their electric power systems, but the U.S. power grid is so large and interconnected that any major strike could have catastrophic results.