The Latest Hazard: Space Storms Can Damage Electrical Systems
As if the potential dangers from severe weather events associated with Climate Change were not enough to worry about, scientists have discovered another reason why we should be losing sleep: Electro-magnetic space storms.
The 11-year maximum and minimum cycle of sunspot activity has been known about, and studied for centuries, but recent breakthroughs by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), have given scientists confidence that they can predict the strength of future Sunspot cycles with 98% accuracy.
Their forecast for the latest cycle (No.24) is for it to start about a year late, but to be 30-50% stronger than the last cycle at its‘ peak in 2012, making it one of the strongest in centuries. The Sun remains quiet at time of writing, suggesting that the first part of this forecast, at least, is coming true.
A number of factors are combining to make the year 2012 a prime candidate for a major electro-magnetic storm affecting North America. Sunspot activity will be at its’ peak, and any resulting Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) will be magnetized north, making it more likely to breach the Earths’ magnetic field. The field itself, which plays an important role in protecting the Earth from these events, has weakened by as much as 10% over the last 150 years. Finally, North Americas’ geographical proximity to the Geomagnetic North Pole makes it even more vulnerable to these events.
The last really large storm occurred in 1859, and caused widespread damage to the fledgling telegraph system. Events on this scale are estimated to occur once every 500 years. Weaker storms disrupted radio communications in 1960, and caused a loss of power for 6 million US and Canadian people in 1989.
Even since 1989, major technological advances have made modern society increasingly dependent on the very systems which are most vulnerable to these events. In the absolute worst case scenario, there is a small chance that what scientists describe as “the Katrina of space storms” could shut down the whole electric grid, leading to the disruption of transportation (especially aviation), communications, banking and finance systems and government services. Costs could start at $1 to $2 trillion, and it could take four to ten years for society to fully recover from the effects.
There is, however, better news in the longer term. Sunspot cycle 25 is predicted to be one of the weakest in centuries, and may be the start of a prolonged period of reduced sunspot activity lasting 60-100 years.
A snapshot of current solar activity can be found at www.spaceweather.com