massive solar storm wreaking havoc on Earth in 2012

New Paper
9 April 2009

A solar storm coming?

Space scientists warn of possible disaster in three years’ time

By Ng Tze Yong

A GRIM prediction of a world teetering on the edge of apocalypse has come, not from the lips of soothsayers or lunatics, but from space scientists.

In a report funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) and issued by the US National Academy of Sciences earlier this year, space scientists warned of a massive solar storm wreaking havoc on Earth in 2012.

A solar storm – essentially plasma balls spewing from the surface of the sun – can distort the Earth’s magnetic field.

A particularly big one can destroy the tens of thousands of expensive and hard-to-build transformers in power grids worldwide.

This will plunge major cities like Singapore into blackouts, which are expected to last months, or even years, as new transformers are painstakingly manufactured.

Standstill

Meanwhile, with no power, modern life grinds to a standstill.

In the first moments of this catastrophe, trains will collide and planes will crash, as their communications systems fail.

Satellites will crash back to Earth like meteors.

Hospitals, with their life-sustaining support systems, will see some of the most urgent needs at first.

But eventually, millions may die from hunger and thirst.

With no power, food cannot be processed or delivered. Water cannot be pumped from reservoirs into homes.

Back-up generators will help, but only for a few days before their fuel runs out.

As sewage systems fail, diseases will break out.

Horses will replace cars, the financial system will collapse and, in a silver lining of sorts, there will certainly be no more e-mails for you to clear.

Unsurprisingly, the report has generated much buzz.

Some accuse Nasa of scare-mongering in a bid to draw more funding.

But some independent experts have also praised the report as ‘fair’, ‘balanced’ and ‘thoughtful’.

In an e-mail interview with The New Paper, Dr Mike Hapgood, who chairs the European Space Agency’s space weather team, wrote: ‘The report brought in expertise from a diverse range of organisations in academia, government and industry…and the ideas were tested by debate in the best traditions of the science and technology community.’

The report is not controversial for its subject, but for its conclusions.

Solar storms are, after all, nothing new. Several hit the Earth every year but most are harmless, resulting only in auroras, the spectacular light shows usually seen in the night sky over the polar regions.

But mankind’s increasing reliance on technology has made us vulnerable in unprecedented ways.

Just how exactly does a storm 150 million kilometres away make your bedside lamp go kaput?

A solar storm comes in three parts (see graphics right), harmful in various ways.

It is the third and main force, a sledgehammer of an electrified gas cloud called the Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), that delivers the killer punch.

By upsetting the Earth’s magnetic field, the CME induces currents in the long wires of power grids.

The grids were not built to handle this kind of destructive overload.

So disaster will strike at transformers in power grids worldwide – where voltage is converted up or down for the transport and consumer use of electricity respectively.

The increased currents create strong magnetic fields that saturate the transformers’ magnetic cores.

This gives rise to runaway current in the transformers’ copper wiring, which rapidly heats up and melts.

Replacing a fried transformer is not like replacing a spark plug on a car engine. They are expensive machines, and no one keeps a spare transformer around the house in case a solar storm hits.

It will take years before the transformers are painstakingly rebuilt, and the world fully recovers.

Hope may lie in an ageing satellite named Ace.

Short for Advanced Composition Explorer, Ace is a space probe positioned directly between the sun and the Earth, built precisely to study solar storms.

Ace plays a crucial role because no matter how large the solar storm approaching Earth is, we can only predict the potential damage it causes once we know its polarity.

Just like a magnet, a solar storm has either a north or south polarity. If it’s north, the storm may bounce off the Earth’s magnetic field harmlessly.

But if it’s south, we’ll have to brace for fried transformers.

There is one way to save these transformers – shut them down before the storm arrives. But that will be a big gamble.

Ace is able to provide between 15 and 45 minutes of warning. But a power station needs about an hour to shut down.

This means the decision to shut down a power station must be taken before the destructive nature of the storm is known.

At stake are billions of dollars in lost business and millions of saved lives.

The sun goes through a 22-year cycle of fluctuating solar activity. The next peak is expected in 2012.

What if the perfect storm arrives then?

The report does not offer solutions. It is intended to spark a discussion but even that is an uphill task.

‘It is hard for people to worry about solar storms when there are empty stomachs to feed,’ said Mr Ang Poon Seng, vice-president of The Astronomical Society of Singapore (Tasos).

Mr Hapgood agrees that it is hard to prepare for Low Frequency High Impact Events (lingo for catastrophic but rare events like solar storms), but it would be foolish not to.

Apocalypse may be near. But it is perhaps also necessary to maintain some perspective in matters of such colossal nature.

Said Mr Albert Lim, president of Tasos, half in jest: ‘You have a higher chance of getting knocked down crossing the road than getting fried in a solar storm.’

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