- Jun 12, 2007
The Government was urged today to make contingency plans for a freak solar flare that could 'knock out' the National Grid and create severe water and food shortages.
Labour former minister Graham Stringer said Britain should be prepared for a repeat of the solar storm of 1859, which hit Earth and paralysed much of the telegraph system.
In a Commons motion, Mr Stringer said such an event could now 'knock out the National Grid, which would lead to a loss of water supply, transport and food and therefore create a national emergency'.
The so-called 'Carrington event' was a magnetic storm that struck Earth in 1859 and caused the failure of telegraph systems all over Europe and North America. Auroras were reportedly seen as far south as Florida.
Now a report funded by NASA claims such a storm today would lead to 'planetary disaster.'
The NAS study released this January outlined the devastating impact it would have. For instance it could leave half of the US without power within 90 seconds, without coal after 30 days and would take the country a decade to recover.
Such a scenario would also cost an estimated £1.5trillion - and that would just be in the first year.
Science fiction? Not according to Mike Hapgood who chairs the European Space Agency's space weather team.
'I don't think the NAS report is scaremongering,' he told the New Scientist.
'This is a fair and balanced report.'
Our 21st century way of life relies heavily on technology, but scientists say this has left society at risk of a 'planetary disaster.'
Unlike many recent natural disasters, a huge solar flare would cause the greatest suffering in developed countries.
Plasma balls blasting out from the surface of the sun could wipe out our modern electricity grids, which would draw the energy to them like antennas and quickly overload.
This would have a knock on effect on many of the systems that support our lives, including water and sewage treatment, medicine cooling, supermarket delivery, power station controls and financial markets.
To rebuild the grid, the melted transformer hubs would need to be replaced but new ones take up to a year to make to order.
At present NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) is the most important indicator of incoming space weather. It can give 15 to 45 minutes warning of geomagnetic storms and power companies need 15 minutes to prepare systems for a critical event.
However, ACE is 11 years old and already operating beyond its planned lifespanm with no planned replacement.
'We will largely lose the early warning capability,' Mr Hapgood said.
As well as this, the flare emitted during the Carrington event travelled so fast it took less than 15 minutes to reach Earth anyway.
The NAS report was released to spark debate and chief author Daniel Baker from the University of Colorado hopes it will push decision-makers into action.
'It takes alot of effort to educate policy-makers, and that is especially true with these low-frequency events,' he said.
'But we are moving closer and closer to the edge of a possible disaster.'