A new study from the National Academy
of Sciences outlines grim possibilities on Earth
for a worst-case scenario solar storm.
Damage to power grids and other communications
systems could be catastrophic, the scientists
conclude, with effects leading to a potential
loss of governmental control of the situation.
The prediction is based in part on a major solar
storm in 1859 that caused telegraph wires to short
out in the United States and Europe, igniting
It was perhaps the worst in the past 200 years,
according to the new study, and with the advent
of modern power grids and satellites, much more
is at risk.
"A contemporary repetition of the 
event would cause significantly more extensive
(and possibly catastrophic) social and economic
disruptions," the researchers conclude.
the sun is in the active phase of its 11-year
cycle, it can unleash powerful magnetic storms
that disable satellites, threaten astronaut safety,
and even disrupt communication systems on Earth.
The worst storms can knock out power grids by
inducing currents that melt transformers.
Modern power grids are so interconnected that
a big space storm — the type expected to
occur about once a century — could cause
a cascade of failures that would sweep across
the United States, cutting power to 130 million
people or more in this country alone, the new
Such widespread power outages, though expected
to be a rare possibility, would affect other vital
"Impacts would be felt on interdependent
infrastructures with, for example, potable water
distribution affected within several hours; perishable
foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; immediate
or eventual loss of heating/air conditioning,
sewage disposal, phone service, transportation,
fuel resupply and so on," the report states.
Outages could take months to fix, the researchers
say. Banks might close, and trade with other countries
"Emergency services would be strained, and
command and control might be lost," write
the researchers, led by Daniel Baker, director
of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics
at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
"Whether it is terrestrial catastrophes
or extreme space weather incidents, the results
can be devastating to modern societies that depend
in a myriad of ways on advanced technological
systems," Baker said in a statement released
with the report.
Solar storms have had significant effects in
— In 1989, the sun unleashed a tempest
that knocked out power to all of Quebec, Canada.
— A remarkable 2003 rampage included 10
major solar flares over a two-week period, knocking
out two Earth-orbiting satellites and crippling
an instrument aboard a Mars orbiter.
"Obviously, the sun is Earth's life blood,"
said Richard Fisher, director of the Heliophysics
division at NASA. "To mitigate possible public
safety issues, it is vital that we better understand
extreme space weather events caused by the sun's
"Space weather can produce solar storm electromagnetic
fields that induce extreme currents in wires,
disrupting power lines, causing wide-spread blackouts
and affecting communication cables that support
the Internet," the report states. "Severe
space weather also produces solar energetic particles
and the dislocation of the Earth's radiation belts,
which can damage satellites used for commercial
communications, global positioning and weather
Rush to prepare
The race is on for better forecasting abilities,
as the next peak in solar activity is expected
to come around 2012.
While the sun is in a lull now, activity can
flare up at any moment, and severe space weather
— how severe, nobody knows — will
ramp up a year or two before the peak.
Some scientists expect the next peak to bring
more severe events than other recent peaks.
"A catastrophic failure of commercial and
government infrastructure in space and on the
ground can be mitigated through raising public
awareness, improving vulnerable infrastructure
and developing advanced forecasting capabilities,"
the report states. "Without preventive actions
or plans, the trend of increased dependency on
modern space-weather sensitive assets could make
society more vulnerable in the future."
The report was commissioned and funded by NASA.
Experts from around the world in industry, government
and academia participated. It was released this