A once-in-a-century solar storm would threaten catastrophic destruction if a worst-case scenario event transpired, a new NASA report has found.
Governments would be powerless to curb the loss of crucial infrastructure including power grids, potable water and sewage disposal, the report said, potentially crippling our way of life for months.
The forecast is based in part on a similarly sized solar storm that took place in 1859, which melted telegraph wires and ignited widespread fires in Europe and the United States, Fox News reports.
If a repeat event happened now, scientists warn the consequences would be far more serious — even “potentially catastrophic” — because modern technologies have made our infrastructure more inter-reliant.
The danger lies in the sun emitting solar flares so intense that they produce magnetic pulses with the force to destroy power grids by melting transformers.
The power outages could spur a series of devastating consequences:
“Impacts would be felt on interdependent infrastructures with, for example, potable water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; immediate or eventual loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, transportation, fuel resupply and so on,” the report writes.
“Emergency services would be strained, and command and control might be lost.”
The sun operates on an 11-year cycle, with the next “active” phase due in 2012 likely to present the nearest danger.
Though worst-case storms are only expected to occur once every hundred years, smaller solar flares have caused major disruptions in modern times.
In 1989, a sun storm was so powerful it blacked out the whole province of Quebec in Canada — an area almost the size of Queensland.
Another event in 2003 knocked out two satellites circling the Earth and destroyed a piece of equipment on a Mars orbiter.
“Obviously, the sun is Earth’s life blood,” NASA spokesman Richard Fisher was quoted as saying.
“To mitigate possible public safety issues, it is vital that we better understand extreme space weather events caused by the sun’s activity.”