The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted the occurrence of a severe solar storm that could wreak havoc on Earth and severely disrupt human health and property.
As per NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), the sun is entering an active phase of activity that might lead to a state of solar maximum by 2013. This normally occurs when a burst of charged particles ejected from the sun's corona slams into Earth's magnetic field at a rate of over 5 million miles per hour.
As the ejection moves towards Earth's surface, it might cause a geomagnetic storm that may disrupt Earth's magnetic field. Due to this, there might be severe disruptions in radio and satellite transmission lines, power grids, airline communications and GPS applications.
What is more disturbing is the fact that this might even lead to increasing exposure to space weather-driven human health risks as space activities like space tourism and space commercialization increase.
In the past, there have been records of similar cases of peak solar activity. The largest recorded case was in September 1859 when a major geomagnetic storm fueled by a solar eruption hit telegraph offices around the world. Some telegraph operators got electric shocks while papers caught fire. Besides this, there were similar instances in 1989 when power grids in Canada were affected.
However, the current situation is predicted to be far more serious by researchers at NASA. It is believed that there might be a series of blackouts in different parts of the world that could last for even weeks or months. Banking and financial networks might go offline, disrupting commerce in a way unique to the Information Age.
To overcome such catastrophic situation, NASA researchers are trying to work out ways to overcome the possible situation.
"We can now track the progress of solar storms in 3 dimensions as the storms bear down on Earth," stated Michael Hesse, chief of the GSFC Space Weather Lab and a speaker at the forum. "This sets the stage for actionable space weather alerts that could preserve power grids and other high-tech assets during extreme periods of solar activity."
They do it using data from a fleet of NASA spacecraft surrounding the sun. Analysts at the lab feed the information into a bank of supercomputers for processing. Within hours of a major eruption, the computers spit out a 3D movie showing where the storm will go, which planets and spacecraft it will hit, and predicting when the impacts will occur. This kind of "interplanetary forecast" is unprecedented in the short history of space weather forecasting.
"This is a really exciting time to work as a space weather forecaster," stated Antti Pulkkinen, a researcher at the Space Weather Lab. "The emergence of serious physics-based space weather models is putting us in a position to predict if something major will happen."
Some of the computer models are so sophisticated; they can even predict electrical currents flowing in the soil of Earth when a solar storm strikes. These currents do the most damage to power transformers. An experimental project named "Solar Shield" led by Pulkkinen aims to pinpoint transformers in the greatest danger of failure during any particular storm.
"Disconnecting a specific transformer for a few hours could forestall weeks of regional blackouts," says Pulkkinen.