The image of the powerful Class X2 solar flare of Feb. 14, 2011, shows how it appeared to both the Solar Dynamics Observatory in extreme ultraviolet light (center sun disk) and the SOHO's C2 coronagraph. This was the largest flare in more than four years.
updated 2/19/2011 7:24:37 PM ET 2011-02-20T00:24:37

Space weather could pose serious problems here on Earth in the coming years, the chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said today.

A severe solar storm has the potential to take down telecommunications and power grids, and the country needs to work on being better prepared, said NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Lubchenco is also the U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.

"This is not a matter of if, it's simply a matter of when and how big," Lubchenco said of the potential for a dangerous solar flare. "We have every reason to expect we're going to be seeing more space weather in the coming years, and it behooves us to be smart and be prepared."

Ramping up
The space weather threat is becoming more dire as our sun ramps up toward its period of solar maximum, predicted for around 2013. Activity on the sun fluctuates on a roughly 11-year cycle, and our star has been relatively dormant for a while.

That's clearly starting to change, though, as evidenced by a class X solar flare – the strongest kind – that erupted from the sun Feb. 14.

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"I think the events of this week certainly underscore how important it is for us to be paying attention to space weather and to be prepared to respond to, and mitigate, potential impacts," Lubchenco said. "As we enter into a period of enhanced solar activity it seems pretty clear that we are going to be looking at the possibility of not only more solar events but also the possibility of some very strong events."

The Feb. 14 flare unleashed a wave of charged particles that streamed immediately toward Earth, as well as coronal mass ejections, or blobs of plasma, that took days to arrive here. When they did, they interacted with Earth's magnetic field to cause geomagnetic storms that wiped out radio communications in the Western Pacific Ocean and parts of Asia, and caused airlines to reroute some polar flights to avoid radio outages.

Next time could be worse
However, experts say we got off fairly lucky with this recent solar storm, and that future eruptions could cause worse damage, particularly to the sensitive transformers and capacitors in power grids. If some of these were harmed, there could be power outages for days, weeks, months, or even, in the case of severe damage, years, experts warned.

"It turned out that we were quite well protected this time, so not much happened," said European Space Agency scientist Juha-Pekka Luntama. "In another case things might have been different."

Space weather hasn't posed quite such a threat before, because during the last solar maximum, around 10 years ago, the world wasn't as dependent on satellite telecommunications, cell phones and global positioning system (GPS) – all technologies that could be disrupted by solar flares.

"Many things we take for granted today are so much more prone to the effects of space weather than was the case during the last maximum," Lubchenco said. The problem is likely to get even worse as the world could likely become more technologically dependent by the time the next solar maximum rolls around, and the next.

Slightly scary
Other experts agree that the risk must be addressed.

"It is slightly scary, and I think properly so," said John Beddington, the U.K. government's chief scientific adviser. "We've got to be scared by these events otherwise we will not take them seriously."

He and other European officials said the world needs greater international cooperation to meet the threat of dangerous space weather.

"There are few emergency scenarios today that require such close cooperation across the Atlantic as a geomagnetic storm," said Helena Lindberg, director general for the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB).

We have an "urgent need to start sharing expertise and connecting our systems for warning and for response," Lindberg said. "This cooperation has to be put in place before a disaster hits."

Despite the risk, though, some experts stressed that there's reason to be optimistic. There is work being done to improve our ability to forecast solar storms in advance, equip more satellites with radiation shielding and fortify power grids with resilient transformers and capacitors.

"Please don’t panic," said Stephan Lechner of the Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre. "Please don't leave the room and tell everybody that space weather will kill us tomorrow."

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Video: Giant flare erupts from sun

  1. Closed captioning of: Giant flare erupts from sun

    >>> in the meantime, a little science. quite a show in the skies. on monday the sun erupted into what was essentially a temper tantrum of solar flares , the biggest we've seen in four years. that radiation is just hitting the earth now, and it could affect everything from satellites to power grids . a professor of physics at city university in new york and author of "physics of the future" which is coming out next month. always good to see you, michio. what's behind the solar show?

    >> well, have you to realize that every 11 years the north pole and the sun pole of the sun flip, releasing a tidal wave of radiation. this is just a warmup exercise for 2012 , 2013 , when we hit the top of the solar cycle . now, remember that in china radio communications were disrupted. in northern ireland they saw this spectacular display of northern lights last night, and the government has issued warnings to satellite providers, the internet companies, power stations , warning them of a possible disruption because of this whopper of a solar flare .

    >> so when we talk about a disruption, what are we talking about? i mean, could this be really serious?

    >> well, it could be serious, but the good news is, a sun spot is like a rifle. it shoots a burst of radiation in a bullet, and last night that bullet just grazed the earth, hitting behind the planet earth so we missed the worst of that solar cycle . however, we have to prepare for the day when a big solar flare , this bullet of radiation, actually hits the earth. it can wipe out power stations , wipe out telecommunications, the gps, the internet, and in a big solar storm , like what happened in 1859 , 150 years ago, it could actually paralize hundreds of cities simultaneously on the earth.

    >> i guess the good news is that the northern lights can be seen across the northern u.s. , right?

    >> that's right, and certain parts of the united states and canada we expect that some cities may see this spectacular maybe once in a generation fireworks in outer space , compliments of the sun. this is a warm of exercise for the peak of the solar cycle which hits late 2012 and 2013 . also remember that we are very young in the space age . we haven't had many solar cycles affect our satellites, but sooner or later we could experience the big one.

    >> dr. kaku, always great to see you. have a great weekend.


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