Social Question

mattbrowne's avatar

How accurate are the NASA predictions about a major solar storm hitting the Earth in the year 2013?

Asked by mattbrowne (31640points) July 6th, 2010


NASA has warned that the Earth could endure a once-in-a-generation “space storm,” bringing widespread power blackouts and leaving people without critical communications signals for a long time. National power grids could overheat and air travel could be disrupted while electronic systems, navigation devices and major satellites could stop working after the Sun reaches its maximum power in a few years. Senior space agency scientists say the Earth will be hit with unprecedented levels of magnetic energy from solar flares when the Sun awakes “from a deep slumber” around 2013. NASA said in its warning that the super storm would hit like “a bolt of lightning” and could cause catastrophic consequences for the world’s health, emergency services and national security unless precautions are taken. The scientists say it could damage everything from iPods and Sat Navs to emergency services’ systems, hospital equipment, banking systems and air traffic control devices. The storm could leave a multi-billion dollar damage bill and “potentially devastating” problems for governments.

“We know it is coming but we don’t know how bad it is going to be,” Dr Richard Fisher, the director of NASA’s Heliophysics division, told The Daily Telegraph in an interview. “It will disrupt communication devices such as satellites and car navigations, air travel, the banking system, our computers, everything that is electronic. It will cause major problems for the world.

“Large areas will be without electricity power and to repair that damage will be hard as that takes time.” Dr Fisher added: “Systems will just not work. The flares change the magnetic field on the earth that is rapid and like a lightning bolt. That is the solar affect.”

NASA scientists, policy-makers, researchers and government officials attended a “space weather” conference in Washington DC last week and was told of similar warnings. Fisher’s comments are the most comprehensive warnings from NASA to date, although other scientists have previously told of the dangers of the storm. Fisher said the storm will cause the Sun to reach temperatures of over 10,000 Fahrenheit, which occurs only a few times over a person’s life time. Every 22 years the Sun’s magnetic energy cycle peaks while the number of sunspots hits a maximum level every 11 years. Fisher, who has been a NASA scientist for 20 years, said these events would combine in 2013 to produce huge levels of radiation. He said large swathes of the world could face being without power for several months, although he said that was unlikely. He said that a more likely scenario would be places which have “fragile” power grids would be without power and access to electronic devices for hours, possibly days. He said preparations were similar to those of a hurricane, where authorities knew a problem was going to occur but did not know how serious it would be.

“I think the issue is now that modern society is so dependant on electronics, mobile phones and satellites, much more so than the last time this occurred,” he said. “There is a severe economic impact from this. We take it very seriously. The economic impact could be like a large, major hurricane or storm.”

Two years ago, the National Academy of Sciences said that power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications could “all be knocked out by intense solar activity.” It said that a powerful solar storm could cause “twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.” Fisher said precautions could be taken including creating back up systems for hospitals and power grids and allow development on satellite “safe modes.”

“If you know that a hazard is coming … and you have time enough to prepare and take precautions, then you can avoid trouble,” he added. Fisher is the Science Mission Director at NASA headquarters. His department investigates the Sun’s influence on the earth by using dozens of satellites to study the threat.

Any opinions?

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30 Answers

marinelife's avatar

I think they will be able to mitigate the impact of the solar storm using current forecasting technology:

“Space weather forecasting is still in its infancy, but we’re making rapid progress,” says Thomas Bogdan, director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Bogdan sees the collaboration between NASA and NOAA as key. “NASA’s fleet of heliophysics research spacecraft provides us with up-to-the-minute information about what’s happening on the sun.

STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) is a pair of spacecraft stationed on opposite sides of the sun with a combined view of 90% of the stellar surface. In the past, active sunspots could hide out on the sun’s farside, invisible from Earth, and then suddenly emerge over the limb spitting flares and CMEs. STEREO makes such surprise attacks impossible.

SDO (the Solar Dynamics Observatory) is the newest addition to NASA’s fleet. Just launched in February, it is able to photograph solar active regions with unprecedented spectral, temporal and spatial resolution. Researchers can now study eruptions in exquisite detail, raising hopes that they will learn how flares work and how to predict them. SDO also monitors the sun’s extreme UV output, which controls the response of Earth’s atmosphere to solar variability.

ACE is a solar wind monitor. It sits upstream between the sun and Earth, detecting solar wind gusts, billion-ton CMEs, and radiation storms as much as 30 minutes before they hit our planet.

“ACE is our best early warning system,” says Bogdan. “It allows us to notify utility and satellite operators when a storm is about to hit.”

NASA Science News

janbb's avatar

(Jeez – I finally stopped worrying about Y2K!)

CMaz's avatar

We are all doomed.

Party like it’s 1999!

mattbrowne's avatar

It was not my intention to scare anyone. Hey, humanity has gotten plenty of sunshine for the past 200,000 years. We are 6.8 billion people alive and kicking. Our species and our sun go together very well. It’s just that we never had so many thingamabobs and whatchamacallit gadgets floating around…

And we got all this forecasting technology mentioned above.

I was just wondering about the quality of this particular 2013 forecast. Maybe it will increase NASA funding. A little exaggeration doesn’t hurt, right?

jfos's avatar

It might help the diplomacy between dysfunctional countries. But it shouldn’t require a solar phenomenon to do that.

tinyfaery's avatar

Uh oh. The 2012 predictions might be true afterall.

chyna's avatar

I hope they are better forecasters than the weather channel.

rebbel's avatar

You mean. by the time i finish reading your question, we could all be toast? ~

judochop's avatar

The weatherman in my area can’t even get a three day forecast right. How am I to believe NASA is doing any better? They use the same equipment.

ubersiren's avatar

@mattbrowne _It was not my intention to scare anyone. _
You had to know this would scare the knickers off us!

This stuff is my worst nightmare, assuming it results in my death or that of someone close to me. An irrational fear, if you will. Putting my family through such catastrophe and suffering… I can’t imagine anything worse. Look at my avatar! Can you imagine that face in fatal distress? I’m getting all antsy just thinking about it. The Gulf leak about gave me a heart attack and makes me increasingly nervous.

Anyway, back on topic, it seems that there is always a threat of this kind that never seems to manifest itself WHICH MEANS WE’RE ABOUT DUE. EVERYONE BUILD A WELL-EQUIPPED UNDERGROUND SHELTER AND HIDE YOUR BABIES AND ELDERLY! AND TWO OF EVERY ANIMAL!

chyna's avatar

@ubersiren No centipedes though. We don’t need them procreating.

janbb's avatar

@chyna Particularly not of the human kind.

chyna's avatar

@janbb Have you watched it yet? I bet you haven’t. Chicken.

janbb's avatar

@chyna I can’t even watch Bride of Frankenstein and sleep! I am the world’s biggest chicken!

CMaz's avatar

Sounds good. I think I will make chicken for dinner tonight.

Thanks for the suggestion. :-)

YARNLADY's avatar

I trust their prediction, but I doubt it is particularly meaningful.

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

My personal electronics are all EMP-shielded. Not that it will do any good if they have nothing worthwhile to connect with after such a storm.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

I hope our elected officials take this seriously and take all possible steps to minimize the effects on our vital infrastructure, not just the military infrastructure. Our quality of life and the safety of the most vulnerable among us depends on it.

hiphiphopflipflapflop's avatar

I think this a news article in the form of a question. You didn’t seriously think someone on Futher was going to come up with a genuine quantitative answer to this question, eh, Matt?

mattbrowne's avatar

@ubersiren – We do rely on technology, but there are backup plans in place in case technology does fail. We survived power outages. We dealt with the threat of a bird flu and swine flu pandemic. Earlier this year Europeans had to cope with volcanic ash and a complete breakdown of air travel. I think it’s great that NASA raises these issues now.

for example has developed into a science and there are thousands of experts discussing “Plan Bs”.

Maybe the storm won’t be as severe as predicted, but if yes, we are prepared because humanity has learned not to ignore problems.

mattbrowne's avatar

@hiphiphopflipflapflop – There are plenty of space experts on Fluther. I know a bit about cosmology and astrophysics, but I’m not an expert on solar observations. Others are more knowledgeable in this area. What’s wrong with asking them?

hiphiphopflipflapflop's avatar

@mattbrowne I’ve been surprised before. ;) Let’s see…

jazmina88's avatar

blonde spiritual musician here…...not the astrophysicist, but we are fighting global warming to no avail. If they take the same attitude and advoidance, it will be a mess.

I certainly hope we will be prepared.

ubersiren's avatar

@mattbrowne How high is air conditioning on the priority list?

mattbrowne's avatar

@jazmina88 – Dealing with global warming is very different from dealing with this phenomenon.

mattbrowne's avatar

@ubersiren – In a disaster situation like power outages air conditioning is only required for people with serious medical conditions.

ubersiren's avatar

@mattbrowne Then it may as well be doomsday. :)

bob_'s avatar

Well, shit. I hope they’re wrong and that nothing happens.

mattbrowne's avatar

As @marinelife pointed out the potential storm is on NASA’s watch list. There’ll be advice on how to handle the situation.

HungryGuy's avatar

The last time that happened was in 1859. We know of no other such event, so we don’t know what the cycle of these things are. It could happen any day, or it might not happen for another thousand years.

But put all your computers and electronics in faraday cages just to be safe….

Personally, I’m more worried about the super volcano under Yellowstone Park. Geologically speaking, that thing’s due to blow any moment now…

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