Latest Global Crisis: Solar Storms Are Set to Hit the Earth

U.S. government tells the electric grid to brace for impact

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It certainly seems like the world has been under attack lately. Now that "Debtaggedon" is over, Reuters is reporting that there have been three large explosions from the Sun over the past few days, and that "sun storms" are set to hit the Earth. The U.S. government, which is pretty pressed for time as it is right now, is warning "users of satellite, telecommunications and electric equipment to prepare for possible disruptions over the next few days." Or, as National Geographic informs us: "Storms are brewing about 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) away, and if one of them reaches Earth, it could knock out communications, scramble GPS, and leave thousands without power for weeks to months."

Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said that the magnetic storm that is soon to develop probably will be in the "moderate to strong level." So how afraid should we be? According to Reuters, major disruptions from solar activity, rare though they may be, have had serious impacts in the past.

In 1989, a solar storm took down the power grid in Quebec, Canada, leaving about six million people without power for several hours...

The 1859 solar storm hit telegraph offices around the world and caused a giant aurora visible as far south as the Caribbean Islands. Some telegraph operators reported electric shocks. Papers caught fire. And many telegraph systems continued to send and receive signals even after operators disconnected batteries, NOAA said on its website.

Reuters adds that according to a 2008 report by the National Research Council, a similar storm could cause up to $2 trillion in damage, globally. But before hysteria sets in, Kunches said that, "I don't think this week's solar storms will be anywhere near that." However, lest we relax too much, the International Business Times reports that solar activity is increasingly becoming a source of concern:

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.

Apparently, the sun is approaching what's known as solar maximum—the high point in its roughly 11-year cycle of activity, according to National Geographic. Scientists anticipate stronger storms around solar max, in 2013. So while Rich Lordan from the Electric Power Research Institute said that "based on the data and the scenarios we can reasonably expect, I believe the power-delivery system can operate through a solar storm," overall the danger is becoming more critical.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.