The sun is getting ready to ramp up its activity, and when it does we could be in for some real trouble, scientists say.
The sun's activity, which follows 11-year cycles, will experience its next peak in 2013. A solar storm of the strongest variety could cause 20 times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina, said a 2008 National Academy of Sciences report on space weather.
Though the odds of a such a storm are relatively small, such an occurrence could create severe weather in the sun's outer atmosphere, knocking out much of the country's power grid, incapacitating navigational systems and jeopardizing spacecraft, scientists say.
More than a million people could go without power, the distribution of drinkable water could be disrupted and transportation, communication and banking systems could be upset, the report said.
To prepare for the activity, scientists from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation and other agencies met earlier this week for discussions at a forum in Washington, D.C.
"The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we're getting together to discuss," Richard Fisher, head of NASA's Heliophysics Division, said in a recent NASA report ahead of the meeting.
Scientists warn that despite the long odds of a severe solar storm, more needs to be done to prepare for the potential danger. And they emphasize that humanity has observed extreme consequences from solar activity before.
In 1859, a solar storm, also known as the Carrington event (after the astronomer Richard Carrington, who first recognized the cause) fried the telegraph system.
Another powerful space weather event in 1989 caused a blackout in Quebec, Canada. Other storms have led to diverted airplanes and impaired telecommunications satellites.
In 2009, a group of experts from around the country issued a report to the National Academies of Sciences on the economic and social impacts of solar storms.
The point of the report was to raise awareness and encourage the government and private businesses to prepare for the long-term consequences of a major event.
The direct result of a space storm would be the breakdown of the electrical grid, the report warned.
John Kappenman, an analyst with Metatech Corporation, a company that studies the effect of electromagnetic interference on power systems, said in the report that damaged transformers take a long time to repair.
In well-documented cases involving heat failures in the transformers that undergird the power system, he said it has taken 12 months or more to replace the damaged units with new ones.
According to the NAS report, "Collateral effects of a longer-term outage would likely include, for example, disruption of the transportation, communication, banking, and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure; and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of lack of refrigeration."
The loss of services, it said, would spill over from one region of the country to the entire nation and potentially lead to international implications.