Our technologically dependent society could be brought to its knees the next time Earth is walloped by an extreme solar outburst, according to a new report.
Intense outbursts of plasma from the Sun, called coronal mass ejections, can create electromagnetic interference that plays havoc with technology. One nasty blast in 1989 knocked out the power grid in Quebec for several hours.
The effects could get much worse, according to a report by a US National Research Council committee led by Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado in Boulder and based on workshops held in May 2008 in Washington, DC.
The most powerful solar outburst on (human technological) record happened in 1859. At that time, it merely disrupted telegraph communication. But if it happened today, it could cause lasting damage to electric power grids, with cascading effects on the supply of water, perishable food, medicine and other necessities, the report says.
Damaged transformers, which change the electricity's voltage, could be a particularly big problem. "If a large number of those were taken out, it could take quite a while to replace them," says Baker. "There's not a lot of stock of them, and they have to be built to order."
One recent study suggested the Sun may be on the verge of a decades-long quiet period, during which big outbursts would be less likely (New Scientist, 10 January 2009, p 11). But such predictions are fraught with uncertainty.