Researchers warn at a London conference that a large-scale solar flare could disrupt satellites in orbit and power stations on Earth. However, not all scientists are convinced of its wide destructive power.
This photograph of the Sun, taken December 19, 1973, by NASA's Skylab 4, shows one of the most spectacular solar flares ever recorded
Earlier this week, scientists attending the Electric Infrastructure Security Council conference in London warned that a massive solar flare may trigger global chaos by causing blackouts and wrecking satellite communications.
Solar flares are large explosions on the surface of the Sun, powered by the sudden release of magnetic energy that has built up in the Sun's atmosphere. They can last just a few seconds or up to an hour, and can occur in smaller intensities as often as several times per day.
The researchers say that this potential disaster could occur within three years, which is when astronomers forecast a peak in the Sun's magnetic energy cycle. They say that the resulting solar storm could potentially cause geomagnetic mayhem on earth, knocking out electricity grids around the world.
"As that magnetic field gets tangled up it gets more and more energetic, and that leads to an eleven year cycle of activity," explained Chris Davis, a scientist on the Solar Stormwatch project at the British Royal Observatory, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.
"We're on a low level of activity at the moment but sunspots are starting to appear again, and spots are the manifestation of this magnetic field poking through the surface of the Sun."
One of the expected effects of the 2013 solar flare is that the Northern Lights will be able to be seen at higher latitudes
Previous large solar ejection occured in 19th century
Astronomers say that the current cycle of solar flare activity started around 2001 and they expect it to reach a peak sometime in 2013. But what's different about this peak is that it could be quite devastating.
The coronal mass ejection could release large amounts of matter, intense magnetic fields and other radiation into space. Typically, some scientists say, ejections of this size only occur approximately every 150 years – the last one was in 1859.
"The world's skies were bathed in a blood red aurora – the Northern and the Southern lights," said Stuart Clark, a British astronomy journalist and author of "The Sun Kings", which details the event and its impact on modern astronomy.
"And at the same time as these lights appeared in the sky, the nineteenth century equivalent of global communications and navigation just completely stopped working."
In other words, Clark explained, compasses spun uselessly and the telegraph – cutting-edge technology at the time – crashed.
A solar flare in 1989 caused the disruption of power plants and transmission stations in Quebec, Canada
Solar flares have disrupted power transmission before
Today, given that the 21st century relies so heavily on other technology like communications and entertainment satellites, the world is more at risk from damage caused by high-energy particles and other disturbances, said Avi Schnurr, who organized the conference. He is a former US Department of Defense analyst, and current executive director of the Israel Missile Defense Association, a lobbying organization.
In addition to affecting spacecraft, such magnetic storms can affect power transmission behavior on the Earth, because they cause "transformer saturation," which reduces or distorts voltage. That could mean the disruption of power plants and transmission stations, which happened in the province of Quebec in Canada during a solar flare in 1989.
"The electric grids when they go down, they bring with them our capability to produce water and send water to homes, to produce food, communications, medical care. All the things we depend on." Schnurr said. "And if it's down for months or years, it's very painful to think what that would mean."
An Australian government scientist dismissed Schnurr's claims as 'overstated'
Other scientists say threat is 'overstated'
But not all scientists are convinced of this high level of damage that a solar ejection would cause to the Earth in 2013.
In an interview published Friday with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Phil Wilkinson, the assistant director of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology's Ionospheric Prediction Service, said that the claims that this solar maximum would be the most violent in 100 years are "overstated."
"[It's] going far beyond what's realistic and could be worrying or concerning for people who don't really understand the underlying science behind it all," he said. "The real message should be that the coming solar maximum period could be equally as hazardous as any other solar maximum."
He also said that the impact on power grids would be minimal.
"At worst, it's a regional thing, not a global thing as these reports imply," he added.
Author Stuart Clark says it would be foolish of governments to ignore warnings about solar flares
Infrastructure could be protected by 'huge surge protectors'
However, Schnurr also said that protecting infrastructure both on the ground and in space is a matter of politics and money.
"We do need to get it together for the governments involved to start protecting the electric grids," he said. "But it turns out there are fairly simple measures which are well understood now which can be taken. There are the equivalents of huge surge protectors which need to be put on these different transformers."
This "equivalent" is known as a residual current device, or RCD, which is used for domestic wiring systems. These are trip switches installed on electricity transmission lines that break the connection when there's a sudden voltage increase.
There would be a temporary disruption in power, but the transformers themselves would be protected. RCDs, Schnurr explained, are roughly analogous to surge protectors used in ordinary homes to protect electronic devices from overloading.
He also said that the cost of installing such preventive measures is relatively inexpensive to governments – in the United Kingdom, it would cost a few hundred million dollars.
But with so many governments slashing their budgets in the United States, Europe and around the globe, it's still not clear whether governments will actually spend money on an event of which the consequences are not predicted with 100 percent certainty.
After all, similar warnings were made over the Y2K bug, the massive worldwide computer glitch, that seemed to be overblown. Still, Stuart Clark said that governments cannot afford to ignore these warnings.
"The consequences if this does happen are just unbelievable," he said. "The loss of the power grid for years, loss of the ability to perform any kind of finance or electronic transfers or anything like that, if we don't do anything to protect ourselves now."
Author: Stephen Beard / Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Susan Houlton