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.
Solar Storms Cause Blackouts, Impair Communications
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.
Restoring Power Grid Could Take More Than 12 Months
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.
The price tag of such a calamity? Several trillion dollars per year, the report said.
Worst-Case Scenario Is Unlikely
But scientists emphasize that this situation is improbable.
Michael Kaiser, project scientist for NASA's Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (STEREO) mission, previously told ABCNews.com that he doesn't think it's likely that a doomsday situation will unfold.
Even though he acknowledged the devastation previous storms had caused, he said that were storms of equal magnitude to hit now, power grid operators could adjust the system to mitigate harm if they had enough notice.
"People who run the power grids on the ground could probably lower the amount of power they're carrying," he said. Still, he said, that as the sun approaches the peak of its cycle, the possibility for interference increases, especially considering we have launched more spacecraft and rely more heavily on technology.
He emphasized that the airlines, the oil and gas industry, agriculture companies and others are dependent on technology that is vulnerable to the sun's volatility.
For example, he said, highway companies, agro-business and deep sea drilling rigs rely on precision GPS technology. Solar interference could knock them off about 100 yards, and even that could have a negative effect on their operations.
He and his colleagues are working to predict sun storms with the same accuracy as meteorologists who predict hurricanes but said they can only forecast about 12 to 17 hours in advance.
Given the potential impact of the storms, they're working to refine their systems.
"It takes a less intense storm to do some damage," he said. "On the other hand, we're getting smarter now."