A solar 'superstorm' is coming and we'll only get 30-minute warning
They cause devastation, occur every 150 years – and the last one was in 1859
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent and i. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; four times highly commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigations into the tobacco industry. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Thursday 07 February 2013
A solar "superstorm" could knock out Earth's communications satellites, cause dangerous power surges in the national grid and disrupt crucial navigation aids and aircraft avionics, a major report has found.
It is inevitable that an extreme solar storm – caused by the Sun ejecting billions of tonnes of highly-energetic matter travelling at a million miles an hour – will hit the Earth at some time in the near future, but it is impossible to predict more than about 30 minutes before it actually happens, a team of engineers has warned.
Solar superstorms are estimated to occur once every 100 or 200 years, with the last one hitting the Earth in 1859.
Although none has occurred in the space age, we are far more vulnerable now than a century ago because of the ubiquity of modern electronics, they said.
"The general consensus is that a solar superstorm is inevitable, a matter not of 'if' but 'when?'," says a report into extreme space weather by a group of experts at the Royal Academy of Engineering in London.
In the past half century, there have been a number of "near misses" when an explosive "coronal mass ejection" of energetic matter from the Sun has been flung into space, narrowly bypassing the Earth.
In 1989 a relatively minor solar storm knocked out several key electrical transformers in the Canadian national grid, causing major power blackouts.
Similar solar storms significantly increased atmospheric radiation levels in 1956, 1972, 1989 and 2003, the experts found.
Professor Paul Cannon, who chaired the academy's working group on solar storms, said that the Government should set up a space weather board to oversee measures aimed at minimising the impact of solar storms.
"A solar superstorm will be a challenge but not cataclysmic. The two challenges for government are the wide spectrum of technologies affected today and the emergence of unexpected vulnerabilities as technology evolves," he said.
"Our message is, 'Don't panic, but do prepare'. A solar superstorm will happen one day and we need to be ready for it.
"Many steps have already been taken to minimise the impact of solar storms on current technology… We anticipate that the UK can further minimise the impact," he added.
Minor solar storms hit the Earth on a regular basis, but these are far less powerful than the 1859 event named after the British astronomer Richard Carrington, which was the last true solar superstorm.
A similar event today would put severe strain the electricity grid, where transformers are particular vulnerable to power surges, as well as degrading the performance of satellites, GPS navigation, aviation and possibly the mobile phone network, particularly the new 4G network, which relies on GPS satellites for timing information.
"Satellites are certainly in the front line of a superstorm. They are part of our infrastructure and we have concerns about their survival in a solar superstorm," said Keith Ryden, a space engineer at Surrey University.
- 1 VMAs 2015: Was Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus' awkward acceptance put-down real or staged?
- 2 If you're not already angry about the migrant crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
- 3 Rules on 5p plastic bags likely to lead to arguments at the check-out
- 4 Chaos breaks out in courtroom as father attacks killer of three-year-old daughter
- 5 Blood Moon and Supermoon: September to bring brightest – and dimmest – full Moon of the year on same night
VMAs 2015: Was Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus' awkward acceptance put-down real or staged?
Bank Holiday Monday opening times: Are Tesco, Asda and other supermarkets open today?
The nine most warmongering countries in the world revealed
Isis releases graphic video showing four Shia 'spies' being burned alive in Anbar, Iraq
Blood Moon and Supermoon: September to bring brightest – and dimmest – full Moon of the year on same night
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
Tony Blair attacks Jeremy Corbyn's 'Alice In Wonderland' politics
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up
Iain Duncan Smith 'should resign over disability benefit death figures', says Jeremy Corbyn
UN investigating British Government over human rights abuses caused by IDS welfare reforms
£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award-winning company, whi...
£40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique & exciting opp...
£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working with a 8 st...
£8000 - £12000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen ...