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‘Space storms’ could wreak 20-times economic damage as major hurricane

July 31, 2010   by

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Impending ‘solar storms’ may disrupt the earth’s magnetic field and wreak twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina, NASA scientists warn.

A solar wind is a stream of charged particles, mostly electrons and protons, spewed from the sun. Should the streams of particles strike the Earth’s magnetic field, they have the potential to modify the electric currents in the ionosphere, potentially knocking out power grids and disrupting satellite signals, according to Wikipedia.

“The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity,” said Richard Fisher, head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division, in a statement on NASA’s web site. “At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms.”

A 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences, Severe Space Weather Events — Societal and Economic Impacts, suggested that smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications can all be knocked out by intense solar activity. “A century-class solar storm could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina,” NASA cited the Academy as warning.

In March 1989, a severe geomagnetic storm caused the collapse of the Hydro-Quebec power grid, leaving six million people without power for nine hours, according to Wikipedia. Much of the damage can be mitigated if managers know a storm is coming. Putting satellites into ‘safe mode’ and disconnecting transformers can protect these assets from damaging electrical surges, NASA said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will collaborate with NASA to better forecast such events, NASA added. •

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