by Jon Hamilton
February 26, 2010
Every few decades, the sun
experiences a particularly large storm that can release
as much energy as 1 billion hydrogen bombs. Officials
from Europe and the U.S. say an event like that could
leave millions on Earth without
electricity, running water
and phone service.
A massive solar storm could leave
millions of people around the world without electricity, running
water, or phone service, government officials say.
That was their conclusion after participating in a tabletop exercise
that looked at what might happen today if the Earth were struck by a
solar storm as intense as the huge storms that occurred in 1921 and
The northern lights
dance over the Knik River near Palmer, Alaska.
Activity on the
surface of the sun creates this natural light show,
but severe solar
storms could devastate Earth's power and water utilities, and knock
Solar storms happen when an eruption or
explosion on the surface of the sun sends radiation or electrically
charged particles toward Earth. Minor storms are common and can
light up the Earth's Northern skies and interfere with radio
Every few decades, though, the sun experiences a particularly large
storm. These can release as much energy as 1 billion hydrogen bombs.
How Well Can
We Weather The Solar Storm?
The exercise, held in Boulder, Colorado, was intended to investigate
"what we think could be close to a worst-case scenario," says Tom
Bogdan, who directs the
Space Weather Prediction Center
The Center is a part of the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
"It's important to understand that,
along with other types of natural hazards, (solar) storms can
cause impacts," says Craig Fugate, Administrator of the
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA),
who also took part in the tabletop exercise.
Bogdan and Fugate say that eventually
there will be another storm as big as the ones in 1921 and 1859 - a
sort of solar Katrina.
But the impact is likely to be far worse than in previous solar
storms because of our growing dependence on satellites and other
electronic devices that are vulnerable to electromagnetic radiation.
In the tabletop exercise, the first sign of trouble came when
radiation began disrupting radio signals and GPS devices, Bogdan
Ten or 20 minutes later electrically charged particles "basically
took out" most of the commercial satellites that transmit telephone
conversations, TV shows and huge amounts of data we depend on in our
daily lives, Bogdan says.
"When you go into a gas station and
put your credit card in and get some gas," he says, "that's a
Satellites Are Just The Beginning
The worst damage came nearly a day
later, when the solar storm began to induce electrical currents in
high voltage power lines. The currents were strong enough to destroy
transformers around the globe, Bogdan says, leaving millions of
people in northern latitudes without power.
Without electricity, many people also lost running water, heat, air
conditioning and phone service. And places like hospitals had to
rely on emergency generators with fuel for only two or three days,
In many ways, the impact of a major solar storm resembles that of a
hurricane or an earthquake, says Fugate.
But a solar Katrina would cause damage in a much larger area
than any natural disaster, Fugate says. For example, power could be
knocked out almost simultaneously in countries from Sweden to Canada
and the U.S., he says. So a lot more people in a lot more places
would need help.
Individuals don't need to make any special preparation for a solar
storm, Fugate says.
The standard emergency kit of water and
food and first aid supplies will work just fine.
"If you've got your family disaster
plan together, you've taken the steps, whether it be a space
storm, whether it be a system failure, whether it be another
natural hazard that knocks the power out," Fugate says.