Image: Solar blast
NASA / SDO
A color-coded extreme ultraviolet image of the sun's disk shows a visually spectacular flare being thrown out on April 16. The flare ejected an outburst of electrically charged particles that was not directed toward Earth, but instead toward several spacecraft — including NASA's STEREO-B probe, the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Mars Science Laboratory.
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updated 4/18/2012 2:16:26 PM ET 2012-04-18T18:16:26

Humanity needs to be much better prepared for massive solar storms, which can wreak havoc on our technology-dependent society, a prominent researcher warns.

Powerful blasts from the sun have triggered intense geomagnetic storms on Earth before, and they'll do so again. But at the moment our ability to predict these events and guard against their worst consequences — which can include interruptions of power grids and satellite navigation systems — is lacking, says Mike Hapgood of the British research and technology agency RAL Space.

"We need a much better understanding of the likelihood of space weather disruptions and their impacts, and we need to develop that knowledge quickly," Hapgood, head of RAL Space's space environment group, writes in a commentary in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

Potentially devastating storms
The solar storms we need to worry about, Hapgood says, are coronal mass ejections, or CMEs — huge clouds of charged solar plasma that can rocket into space at speeds of 3 million mph (5 million kilometers per hour) or more.

CMEs that hit Earth inject large amounts of energy into the planet's magnetic field, spawning potentially devastating geomagnetic storms that can disrupt GPS signals, radio communications and power grids for days. [The Worst Solar Storms in History]

The world witnessed such effects not too long ago. In March 1989, a CME caused a power blackout in Quebec, leaving 5 million Canadians in the dark in cold weather for hours. The event caused about $2 billion in damages and lost business, Hapgood writes.

But CMEs are capable of much greater mischief. A huge ejection — now known as the Carrington event, after a British astronomer— slammed into Earth in 1859, setting off fires in telegraph offices. The world was not technologically advanced enough yet to suffer worse consequences, Hapgood noted.

"If we had a repeat of the Carrington event, I would expect several days of economic and social mayhem as many critical technological systems failed — e.g., localized power grid failures in many countries, widespread loss of GPS signals for navigation and timing, disruption of communications systems, shutdown of long-haul aviation," Hapgood told Space.com via email.

And the short-term problems caused by such a storm could pale in comparison with its long-term impact, he added.

"What scares me is the possibility that this recovery could take a long time in many parts of the world," Hapgood said. "Over the past few decades, we have become much more dependent on technology to sustain our everyday lives: e.g., electricity to pump clean water to our homes and remove sewage, just-in-time supply chains to feed us, ATMs and retail card readers to provide money for everyday shopping. Do we know how to recover quickly from the simultaneous disruption of a huge range of systems?"

Improving predictions
Despite a growing sense of concern among scientists — and decision-makers in politics and industry — our technology-dependent society remains vulnerable to a big CME-spawned geomagnetic storm, Hapgood says. [Photos: Huge Solar Flare Eruptions of 2012]

For starters, our forecasting ability, while improving, is still lacking. The United States' Space Weather Prediction Center can currently provide warnings of strong geomagnetic storms 10 to 60 minutes in advance with about 50 percent accuracy, Hapgood writes. That's a pretty small window for power companies to take protective measures.

Space-weather forecasters generally rely on observtions of approaching CMEs made by a handful of spacecraft. These include NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and Solar Terrestrial Rela­tions Observatory (STEREO) probes, as well as the NASA/European Space Agency Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO).

ACE launched in 1997, SOHO in 1995 and the twin STEREO craft in 2006. It's time for an upgrade, Hapgood told Space.com.

"We really need to replace those spacecraft and their instruments that monitor CMEs and, if possible, upgrade the instruments so they are optimized for space weather monitoring — essentially to pull out the most critical data and get it back to Earth as soon as possible," he said.

Preparing for the worst
The 1989 event spurred some power companies to require that all new transformers be able to withstand storms of similar magnitude.

But Hapgood thinks power, aviation and other vulnerable industries  — including finance, which depends on precise GPS time stamps for automatic trading — should take a longer view and guard against the huge storm that comes along just once every 1,000 years or so.

That's tough to do, since researchers don't know what a thousand-year storm might look like; data on such dramatic events are pretty hard to come by. But Hapgood says scientists could get a better idea by analyzing more data, including observations from a century or more ago.

Much of this historical information exists on paper only. Digitizing it would bring these records to the attention of many more researchers, Hapgood says, and he suggests enlisting citizen scientists to do the job on the Internet, much as the Galaxy Zoo project has asked volunteers to classify galaxies online by the galaxies' shapes.

Researchers also need to develop better physics-based models to improve their understanding of extreme space weather, Hapgood says. And he suggests that studying storms on other, sunlike stars could be helpful, too.

In general, Hapgood is calling for powerful geomagnetic storms to be regarded as natural hazards similar to big earthquakes and volcanic eruptions: infrequent, potentially devastating events.

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"These events often transcend the experience of any individual because they happen so rarely. Thus there is an all-too-human tendency to ignore them — that they lie outside the awareness of the decision-maker and probably will not occur during his term of office," Hapgood said. "But these events will happen sometime. We need to understand them and decide how far we should (i.e., can afford to) protect against them — and definitely not leave them until it's too late."

You can follow Space.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter:@michaeldwall. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom  and on Facebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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