Experts: Extreme Solar Storm Could Cause Cosmic 'Katrina'

A cosmic “Katrina” could cause global damage and knock out crucial electronics, experts say.

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Earth has about a one-in-eight chance of being hit with an "extreme" solar flare in the next decade that could potentially cause billions of dollars in damage and cripple electronic communication systems, according to a new estimate published in the journal Space Weather.

Geomagnetic solar storms—bursts of energy from the sun that disturb earth's magnetic field—are relatively common, but "average" storms rarely have any impact once they hit earth's atmosphere, researchers say.

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So called "extreme" events, however, which appear to happen about once every 150 years, could wreak havoc on electrical technology, causing nationwide blackouts, prompting air traffic nightmares, and bringing global transport to a standstill. There's about a 12 percent chance a storm that strong will hit earth within the next 10 years, Pete Riley, the study's author, says.

"It ends up being a relatively significant number," Riley says. "If you told me the probability of my getting a particular disease over the next 10 years was 12 percent, I'd be concerned about that."

According to Riley, "just as terrestrial events such as tornadoes and hurricanes can have devastating effects on Earth, severe space weather events can produce a host of consequences that impact society."

Though no "extreme" solar storms have hit earth since the 1850s, a March 1989 storm blacked out power to millions of people in Quebec for about nine hours. A stronger storm could have much more catastrophic consequences, according to a 2008 report by the National Academy of Sciences. The United States isn't prepared to "cope with the effects of a 'space weather Katrina,'" researchers said.

Potential permanent damage to power transformers and other electrical systems caused by a "severe geomagnetic storm scenario" could cost up to $2 trillion to repair and take up to 10 years for a full recovery, according to the National Academy of Sciences report.

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The 1859 "Carrington Event," the most powerful solar storm on record, caused bright aural flashes throughout much of the Western Hemisphere: Observers in Cuba said the night sky "appeared stained with blood." In New York City, the "heavens [were] arrayed in a drapery more gorgeous than they have been for years." Telegraph systems throughout the United States and Europe went offline, shocked operators, and, in some cases, caught fire.

If a similar storm were to hit Earth today, as Riley predicts it might, the beauty of the auras could be offset by catastrophic damage to electronics everywhere.

"There were some technology consequences even back then," he says. "Today, with our power grids, our electricity, the potential consequences are much larger." Riley says. "I don't believe all those worst-case scenarios would happen, but it's anybody's guess."