Lawmakers plan for extreme solar storm

Published: Sep. 26, 2016 at 4:24 PM EDT
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When it comes to extreme weather, some storms are just out of this world. Solar storms that develop 93 million miles away could change our way of life. GPS, cell phones and electricity are things we depend on every day, but huge eruptions of plasma from the sun could shut down satellites and overpower the electric grid. “Realistically it will happen again” says Dr. Michael Cushing. Cushing is an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Toledo. While extreme solar explosions are rare, one big event in 1859 produced an aurora that turned the night into day. It was powerful enough to push the northern lights south over Hawaii and Cuba. The solar storm also brought down the country’s telegraph network. Cushing said, “They were sparking on some of the poles, some of the telegraph operators got shocked, and it even started some fires.”

Michigan senator Gary Peters said, “If that happened in 1859 you can imagine what would of happen today. In fact Lloyds of London calculated that if you had an event like occurred in 1859, you could have up to 40 million people without power perhaps up to 2 years without power, and the cost to the economy could be in the trillions of dollars, that is with a T." Senator Peters introduced the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act back in April. It’s expected to be voted on in the house and senate before the year ends.

Peter’s said, “It is not a question of if, but when. The last one occurred 150 years ago and scientists believe these occur about every 150 years so we may be nearing that again which is why we need to prepare for it." The biggest wake-up call happened in July of 2012 when a solar superstorm missed earth’s orbit by just 9 days. Scientists with NASA believe the blast was just as powerful as the 1859 event.

Extreme geomagnetic storms have occurred all throughout history, but they wouldn’t have made much of an impact without electricity. Today the world is connected like never before. If the next massive solar storm sneaks up without warning, the results could be dramatic. If passed, the bill would open up better communication between space weather forecasters. It would also lead to more research and better forecast tools.

Cushing said, “In principle you could turn off satellites for a little while or turn off the power grid, something where you wouldn't destroy it. You might be down for a day as the storm passes, but you wouldn't destroy it."

Space weather forecasts today are about as accurate as a hurricane forecast 90 years ago. It is worth noting while large solar storms do induce electric currents on earth that can impact our way of life, they don’t actually cause any physical harm to humans or animals.