Native Village
Youth and Education news
Volume 1    April 2011

Scientists: A Solar Storm Could Have the Power of Katrina
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A small flare leaves the sun, upper left

Scientists say we're entering a new solar cycle of more intense and frequent solar storms. Worsening solar storms could shut down telecommunications, ground airline service and lead to global blackout.

A massive solar storm could have dire consequences across the world.

"I'm not talking about days or weeks, but several months without electric power, blackouts, across large regions of Europe and the U.S.," said Helena Lindberg during the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting.

Solar storms happen when the sun releases large bursts of electrified gasses. These storms can disrupt satellites, fry electronic devices, and even disrupt the electricity grid.

While such variations in the sun's cycle are normal, the problem is that today's world relies on electronic devices. These are especially vulnerable during such solar storms.

Lindberg pointed to disasters such as Asia's 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. While those were localized disaster areas, a massive solar storm could disrupt the entire world.

"To my mind, there are few emergencies today that require such a close cooperation across the Atlantic as that of the geomagnetic storm," Lindberg said.

Jane Lubchenco heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She says increasing solar storms are already having an impact on Earth.  Airlines have even been forced to change their planes' routes because of them.

Unlike previous solar cycles, our world now is particularly vulnerable to disruption.

"The last time we had a maximum in the solar cycle about 10 years ago, the world was a very different place," she said, noting the increase in airline traffic and the reliance on devices such as cell phones.

The effects of space storms are similar to solar storms.  Some space storms include explosions that release pulses very similar to a man-made electromagnetic pulse. Space storm pulses may interfere with satellites and electronic devices.

But spaces storms are localized in space. A solar storm will affect the entire planet.

Scientists can't predict the impact of a massive solar storm on Earth's communications and services. But Stephan Lechner (European Commission Joint Research Center) says our goal should be to take measures now.  If protective steps aren't taken, the communications and electronic infrastructure could be severely disrupted

John Beddington is the U.K. government's chief scientific adviser. He says solar storms are not on his government's national risk register ... "but it should be."

The current solar cycle is expected to reach its peak in 2025.

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