2008 report from US National Academies of Sciences’ Space Studies Board:
NASA Science News, June 4, 2010, “As the Sun Awakens, NASA Keeps a Wary Eye on Space Weather”
Richard Fisher, head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division, explains what it’s all about:
“The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we’re getting together to discuss.”
The National Academy of Sciences framed the problem two years ago in a landmark report entitled “Severe Space Weather Eventsâ€”Societal and Economic Impacts.” It noted how people of the 21st-century rely on high-tech systems for the basics of daily life. Smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications can all be knocked out by intense solar activity. A century-class solar storm, the Academy warned, could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.
(Hurricane Katrina caused $81 billion in damage, so 20 times that would be $1.6 trillion in damage.)
It is difficult to come to any conclusion because the experts disagree.
Discovery: Is a Devastating Solar Flare Coming to a City Near You? — pessimistic analysis from an astrophysicist:
In the case of space weather, wouldn’t it be great if, as a civilization, we could look at the sun and get advanced notice of a solar eruption? All we’d need is a few hours lead-time and we could reduce the output of national power grids (to avoid overload) and switch our satellites into “safe mode.” Once the storm has passed, we’d continue our lives as normal. Disaster averted.
Unfortunately, it often takes a disaster to teach us to prepare better in the future. I just hope the next solar maximum doesn’t teach us a lesson we can’t recover from.
A lot of drama and ink spilled in this post, but ultimately this astrophysicist sounds just as uncertain and confused as your average dude.
Counterpoint to the above: Expert rubbishes solar storm claims:
One report quotes an Australian astronomer as saying “the storm is likely to come sooner rather than later”.
But Dr Phil Wilkinson, the assistant director of the Bureau of Meteorology’s Ionospheric Prediction Service, says claims that this coming solar maximum will be the most violent in 100 years are not factual.
“All this talk about gloom and doom has selling power, but I’m certain it’s overstated,” he said.
“[It's] going far beyond what’s realistic and could be worrying or concerning for people who don’t really understand the underlying science behind it all.
“The real message should be that the coming solar maximum period could be equally as hazardous as any other solar maximum.”
Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of explanation as to why this expert believes there isn’t a major risk, or what exactly he means by “regional”.
Space Weather Enterprise Forum has been meeting for four years to discuss the solar maximum risk.
The Register: NASA: Civilization will end in 2013 (possibly)
Searching for “solar maximum”, “power grid” on Google Scholar reveals 13 results. Either this means I’m using the wrong search terms, there’s only a minority of scientists qualified to write on this topic and barely any do, or something else disappointing given the scale of the risk. Here’s one article from Science:
Are We Ready for the Next Solar Maximum? No Way, Say Scientists
Richard A. Kerr
If the once-in-500-years “solar superstorm” that crippled telegraph systems for a day or two across the United States and Europe in 1859 but otherwise was mainly remembered for its dramatic light show were to happen today, the charged-particle radiation and electromagnetic fury would fry satellites, degrade GPS navigation, disrupt radio communications, and trigger continent-wide blackouts lasting weeks or longer. Even a storm of the century would wreak havoc. That’s why space physicists are so anxious to forecast space weather storms accurately. If predicting a hurricane a few days ahead can help people prepare for a terrestrial storm’s onslaught, they reason, predicting solar storms should help operators of susceptible systems prepare for an electromagnetic storm. And space weather forecasters’ next challenge is coming up soon. The next peak in the 11-year sunspot cycle of solar activity looms in 2012 or 2013. A space weather symposium last month asked, “Are we ready for Solar Max?” The unanimous answer from participants was “No.”
So far, the balance of scientific opinion seems to be on the side of very serious concern.
My response to the above abstract is mostly — in this context, who cares about fried satellites, degraded GPS navigation, and disrupted radio communications in comparison to week-long blackouts? Translated into risks affecting personal health, in my mind that line would read something like this: “the risk could cause a broken toenail, difficulty hearing, an itchy back, and cancer”.