The Edge of Space
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|Rick Pantaleo||August 13th 2012|
Stormy weather on the sun could soon wreak havoc on Earth, knocking the world’s power grids off line while damaging communication equipment, satellites, spacecraft and GPS systems, possibly leaving us unable to communicate or transact normal business.
Mike Hapgood, a scientist who specializes in space weather at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in England, told Reuters governments around the world are taking threats posed by these solar storms so seriously that they’re putting them on their national risk registers, which are normally used for disaster planning, along with events like tsunamis and volcanic eruption. “These things may be very rare but when they happen, the consequences can be catastrophic,” Hapgood said.
The sun, just like Earth, has its own weather systems. And, just like on Earth, the sun can have bouts of really stormy conditions from time to time.
Thanks to Earth’s protective magnetic fields and our atmosphere, we’re mostly protected from the effects of solar events.
In the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides real-time monitoring and forecasting of solar and geophysical events and is the country’s official source of space weather alerts, watches and warnings. NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) is part of the National Weather Service, the component of NOAA that provides weather, water and climate data, as well as forecasts and warnings. SWPC’s daily forecasts provide the latest space weather information. Warnings and alerts are issued for any potentially-troublesome solar or geophysical conditions.
With the sun entering its most active phase of the 11-year solar cycle, SWPC’s Joe Kunches says those involved in industries and technologies most affected by solar flares and coronal mass ejections should pay close attention to space weather forecasts. Kunches agrees that severe solar events should be added to governments’ national risk registries alongside tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. “We’ve become so accustomed to electricity and all of the things that are afforded by having a reliable power system, food storage and so on, that if you had a strong and very severe space weather event, probably most people on the ground would have no knowledge of that directly, but they would know in short order when the systems on which they depend aren’t working anymore,” said Kunches.
Rick Pantaleo hosts VOA’s “Science World,” from which this article is adapted.