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Solar storm delivers a glancing blow to Earth – and a warning

The solar storm caused by a massive eruption two days ago arrived at Earth Wednesday, but it was only a taste of what scientists say might come – and the world is not prepared.

By Staff writer / June 9, 2011

The Solar Dynamics Observatory took this picture of a coronal mass ejection Tuesday. Power supplies, air-traffic control, communications, and satellites can all be disrupted by solar storms.

NASA/REUTERS

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Charged particles from a huge solar eruption two days ago delivered only a glancing blow to Earth Thursday.

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But it still represented a warning. Solar activity is approaching the 2013 peak of its 11-year cycle, called the "solar maximum," and the developed world finds itself ever more dependent on systems vulnerable to massive solar storms.

Perhaps most important, the power grid is 10 times larger than it was in 1921, when the last solar superstorm hit, effectively making it a giant new antenna for geomagnetic current. A far stronger solar outburst could overload and wreck hundreds of critical high-voltage transformers nationwide, blacking out 130 million people for months and costing as much as $2 trillion, according to an Oak Ridge National Laboratory study.

"When we look back through history, we can see the thumbprint of these extreme events that were a lot worse in their intensity than anything seen in the modern space era," says Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who chaired a seminal 2008 National Research Council study on solar weather's impact on the North American power grid.

As “society is becoming more and more dependent on vulnerable systems like the power grid,” he adds, it is “dramatically increasing its vulnerability every few years."

The first confirmed "solar tsunami" occurred in 1859. British astronomer Richard Carrington was busily sketching sunspots through his telescope when he observed a brilliant, oval-shaped light erupting from the sun that lasted several minutes.

Days later, telegraph systems worldwide went haywire. There was so much geomagnetically induced current on the lines that some telegraph operators reported being able to use the systems without batteries. In other cases, telegraph offices caught fire and wires melted. The northern lights could be seen as far south as Cuba.

More than 150 years later, the US and most other nations are not well prepared to weather a truly massive solar storm like the "Carrington event," many experts say.

The threat, however, is gaining attention.

The White House and the British government last month unveiled plans to collaborate on a space weather warning system that would improve predictions. Early this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that a new computer modeling system to predict space weather would be operational this fall. The idea is to give power-grid operators and others ample time and certainty to prepare in advance of a solar storm.

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