"We should prepare for a space weather event that might happen only once in 1,000 years".
One of the arguments put forward by Professor Mike Hapgood, Chair of an expert group advising the Government on space weather risks, in a comment piece for this week’s Nature (Thursday 19 April 2012).
Space weather and in particular coronal mass ejections (violent eruptions from the Sun’s atmosphere) can cause huge disruption to many highly technological systems on Earth. In 1989, five million people were left without electricity, causing billions of dollars in damages and losses to business, as Earth experienced its largest geomagnetic storm in decades.
Professor Hapgood is head of the Space Environment Group at STFC’s RAL Space. He says although the timing of coronal mass ejections can be predicted with increasing accuracy through missions such as NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) (link opens in a new window) and Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) (link opens in a new window) more work is needed to understand how big a storm we might encounter in future.
This eruption of plasma from the Sun in June 2011, captured by instruments on the STEREO spacecraft, didn't cause a space weather storm on Earth - others will.
(Credit: J Davies, STFC/RAL Space)
“We already know that a space weather storm the size of those that struck in 1859 or 1921 would prove disastrous, potentially leaving some areas without power for months and causing trillions of dollars of damage. But we should be preparing for a bigger storm, of the type likely to hit once in a thousand years. Sadly, we don't know how big that storm might be”.
Professor Hapgood suggests in the article, a number of methods that would allow systems at risk, such as power grids and airlines to make informed decisions about how to deal with future solar storms. One of these is doing more statistical studies such as those already being carried out through Solar Stormwatch (link opens in a new window), a project in which members of the public use images from STEREO to spot explosions on the Sun and track them across space to Earth. The full article from Professor Mike Hapgood can be viewed on the Nature website (link opens in a new window).
For more information please contact: RAL Space Enquiries