Severe Solar Storms Could Disrupt Earth This Decade: NOAA

on August 08 2011 7:08 AM
Spectacular Photos of Solar Flares Detected by NASA
Spectacular Photos of Solar Flares Detected by NASA NASA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a federal agency that focuses on the condition of the oceans and atmosphere, said a severe solar storm could cause global disruptions in GPS systems, power grids, satellite communications, and airline communications.

With solar activity expected to peak around 2013, the Sun is entering a particularly active time and big flares like the recent one will likely be common during the next few years.

Most solar flares will only cause minor problems with satellites and power grids, but a major flare in the mid-19th century blocked the nascent telegraph system, and some scientists believe that another such event is now overdue.

In a huge solar storm back in 1859, telegraph offices worldwide were hit, some telegraph operators reported electric shocks, the telegraph systems malfunctioned and even paper caught fire. It's the strongest solar storm on record -- and is called the “Carrington Event” -- which is named after Richard Carrington, who viewed and reported on the solar flare of Sept. 1, 1859. Now, flash forward: In 1989, six million people in Quebec, Canada were left without power for several hours when a solar storm took down a power grid.

According to a report by the National Research Council in 2008, a solar storm similar to the ones in the past could cause up to $2 trillion dollars in damage across the globe today.

The NOAA predicted four “extreme” solar emissions which could threaten the planet this decade. Similarly, NASA warned that a peak in the sun's magnetic energy cycle and the number of sun spots or flares around 2013 could enable extremely high radiation levels.

This is a particular problem in the U.S., especially and poses a severe threat especially in the eastern U.S. Several federal government studies suggest that this extreme solar activity and emissions may result in complete blackouts for years in some areas of the nation. Moreover, there may also be disruption of power supply for years, or even decades, as geomagnetic currents attracted by the storm could debilitate the transformers.

Last month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said U.S. plants affected by a blackout should be able to cope without electricity for atleast eight hours and should have procedures to keep the reactor and spent-fuel pool cool for 72 hours.

Nuclear plants depend on standby batteries and backup diesel generators. Most standby power systems would continue to function after a severe solar storm, but supplying the standby power systems with adequate fuel, when the main power grids are offline for years, could become a very critical problem.

If the spent fuel rod pools at the country's 104 nuclear power plants lose their connection to the power grid, the current regulations aren't sufficient to guarantee those pools won't boil over -- exposing the hot, zirconium-clad rods and sparking fires that would release deadly radiation.

A report by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory said that over the standard 40-year license term of nuclear power plants, solar flare activity enables a 33 percent chance of long-term power loss, a risk that significantly outweighs that of major earthquakes and tsunamis.

A solar flare is caused when an intense burst of radiation comes from the release of magnetic energy associated with sunspots. Flares are the solar system's largest explosive events. A coronal mass ejection happens when the outer solar magnetic fields are closed, often above sunspot groups, and the confined solar atmosphere can suddenly and violently release bubbles of gas and magnetic fields.

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