By David Gutierrez | Natural News
Recent studies of other stars have revealed that our sun is capable of blasting the Earth with a solar flare that is far more powerful than anything that has been seen since humans started tracking “solar weather” in the 1970s, warned Kyoto University astrophysicist Kazunari Shibata at the recent Space Weather Workshop in Boulder, Colorado. The workshop was sponsored by NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Such a “superflare” could have catastrophic consequences, knocking out modern power grids and satellites along with all of the basic services that depend upon them.
The largest known solar flare in modern times was the Carrington Event, which occurred in 1859 and caused the aurora borealis to be seen as far south into the tropics as Cuba, El Salvador and Hawaii. According to a 2008 study by the National Academy of Sciences, a similar flare occurring today would have an economic impact greater than $2 trillion.
Superflares more common than previously thought
Solar flares occur when the magnetic energy concentrated in sunspots erupts out from the sun’s surface. These flares, which occur daily, can vary dramatically in magnitude (that is, how much energy they contain). The NOAA Space Weather Scale ranks flares based on their peak X-ray output, from a low of R1 to an extreme of R5. R5 flares occur roughly once per solar cycle, or about once every 11 years. Thus far, no solar flares during the current cycle have exceeded R3 (“strong”).
According to research conducted by Hiroyuki Maehara and colleagues and published in the journal Nature in 2012, the sun should produce a solar flare 1,000 times larger than an R5 rating about once every 800 to 5,000 years. This conclusion was based on an analysis of stars observed by the unmanned Kepler spacecraft launched in 2009. The researchers found that over the course of 120 days, Kepler observed evidence of 365 superflares taking place across more than 80,000 stars similar to our sun.
A separate analysis conducted by Shibata concluded that a superflare should occur only once every 10,000 years or so.
National power grid completely unprepared
Strong solar flares regularly disrupt radio communications and radio navigation services, and they have also been known to cause disruption or even permanent damage to the sensitive electronics in satellites. They can contribute to severe geomagnetic storms that are capable of disrupting Earth-side electrical grids. However, the results of a superflare could be devastating on a completely different scale.
According to numerous speakers at the June 2012 Space Weather Enterprise Forum in Washington, D.C., the United States is woefully unprepared for the results of a major solar flare or geomagnetic storm. The speakers noted that neither the government nor utilities have any plans in place to prevent the nationwide power grid from shutting down in such an event, nor is there any plan in place to recover from the impacts of such a shut-down. Therefore, a major flare or geomagnetic storm would likely lead to long-term disruptions to critical electricity-dependent systems such as food and agriculture; medicine; transportation; telecommunications; and nearly every commercial activity.
The threat is not as farfetched as it might seem. It is well established that the constant barrage of low-grade geomagnetic storms that electric transformers are subjected to causes them to weaken and wear out over time. This long-term weakening might make large sections of the power grid vulnerable to even a relatively moderately sized geomagnetic storm, such as the one that knocked out the power for all of the province of Quebec in 1989.
In that case, only a handful of transformers were damaged, and power was restored within a day. However, experts warn that a larger storm could knock out the high-voltage transmission lines themselves, requiring a major industrial effort to replace those lines; such an effort would be enormously difficult in the context of a crippled electric grid.
This article originally appeared on Natural News.