A big solar storm could cost $2 trillion, could be a global Katrina

A big solar storm could cut power off for months and disrupt airline communication.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

The impact of a big geomagnetic storm has been estimated to be $2 trillion. Good thing the solar storm last week didn't cause that much disruption to our technology infrastructure and communication network. However, there were some reports that the blast of electrically charged gas traveling at five million miles an hour did cause minor ground communication disruption.

During the AAAS press briefing, University of Colorado Boulder professor Daniel Baker said:

The sun is coming back to life. For the past several years the sun has been in its most quiescent state since early in the 20th century.

We live in a different world now, it's more connected than ever. GPS is ubiquitous. When the last solar storm hit, we weren't as wired and hooked to the grid. But our ability to predict space weather is where weather forecasts were in the 1960s...pretty crappy.

If you're wondering what a coronal mass ejection looks like, here's some video of the Class X flare on Feb. 15, taken over the course of 11 hours. If you think of it like a hurricane category, this type of flare is the most powerful kind:

The Solar Dynamics Observatory helps scientists understand the solar cycle. The sun has a cycle of about 11 years, and scientists can track it based on the number of sun spots on the sun. Any magnetic changes can impact our life on Earth and our use of technology. Think about it. We didn't depend on cell phones as much when the last solar cycle maximum occurred a decade ago.

A big solar storm might hit soon, so we better be prepared for it. A big solar storm could disrupt our communication network by damaging the power grid, messing up airline communication and damaging satellites in orbit. Fortunately, the scientists say we are getting better at predicting large solar storms, thanks to real-time data from NASA satellites.

The European Space Agency set up the Space Situation Awareness Preparatory Programme in 2009 to monitor geomagnetic disturbances on power lines and pipelines.

However, Stephan Lechner of the European Commission said:

it will be extremely difficult to predict the potential implications of "bad space weather" on our earth-based hightech infrastructures: Even if we can calculate signal strength - would we be able to predict the consequences if GPS or other systems had to be shut down completely to protect themselves from damage? Even our technical standards do not always help: The need for accurate timing in telecommunications can serve as an example, where only the accuracy is standardized but not the way to get there.

After the briefing, I spoke with William J. Murtagh, program coordinator National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Prediction Center. Check back for the video interview to see what Murtagh told me about solar storms.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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