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Friday, February 08, 2008

The coming space storm

A recent article on MSNBC details the current discussion over whether the next solar cycle will be moderately strong, or moderately weak.(HT Ryan).

The following sums up some of the problems that can arise from solar-terrestrial interactions::

Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado-Boulder, noted that more than $200 billion of satellites in space can be affected by changes in solar radiation as the cycle rises and falls.

In addition, Baker said, other problems include:
  • Airlines flying over the pole face loss of communications that could force them to use a different, longer route at an added cost of as much as $100,000 per flight.
  • The Global Positioning System is immensely important to commerce and can be disrupted by solar activity.
  • Operating floating oil rigs in the ocean requires keeping them positioned within a few inches to prevent damaging drilling gear. "They have to know when GPS is going to be accurate."
  • There is an increased radiation risk to humans in space.
  • Currents can be induced in long electrical transmission lines, causing blackouts.

Dan then provides the real kicker:

In the past, such problems have been caused by solar superstorms, he said.

"Storms don't have to be so super any more" to cause problems, Baker said, as more and more systems become susceptible to solar effects.


You see we don't just go on about 'blackouts in 1989', Prof. Wade, it's just that that was when you stopped listening to us.

One thing I (and others) have been interested in is having the UK establish a proper UK space weather centre. That way we would not be wholly reliant on another country, no matter how friendly we are with them, for looking at something that is going to start causing more and more problems as our technology becomes more and more susceptible to space weather effects. Obviously with STP such a low science priority in the UK this looks like an unlikely endeavour and in the long run will be to the detriment of the country, especially when the publicly available options start to become pay-as-you-go.

1 comment:

Ryan Somma said...

Excellent point! The start of a new solar cycle does emphasize the importance of your research. It's sad that if you were to use terms like "global catastrophe" or focus on blackouts, etc, you'd probably get more funding attention. Why can't politicians have more scientific literacy?