Scientists Warn of 'Space Weather Katrina' and Say U.S. Is Unprepared

June 23, 2010
By Sherry Mazzocchi
Daily News Writer

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Scientists warn that the Earth might be vulnerable to a "space weather Katrina," an event that could leave large parts of the U.S. without power, water or access to communication. And the U.S. is unprepared for such a disaster.

Dr. Richard Fisher, director NASA's heliophysics division, says the sun has an 11-year cycle and is now emerging from a quiet period.

The next phase of the cycle - the solar maximum - lasts from 2012 to 2015, he said. Larger solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) occur during this period. The largest flareups, estimated to occur every 30 to 100 years, cause geomagnetic storms strong enough to damage GPS satellites and high-voltage transformers. A report from the National Academy of Sciences, Severe Space Weather Events, says the U.S. is at risk of losing power for a significant period of time.

"It's very likely in the next 10 years that we will have some impact like that described in the National Academy report," said Fisher. "Although I don't know to what degree."

Doug Biesecker, top solar physicist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said severe solar storms have occurred in the past. The strongest geomagnetic storm on record occurred in 1859 and rendered telegraph machines useless. Another slightly smaller geomagnetic storm occurred in 1921.

"If the 1921 storm happened today, it would knock out power from Maine to Georgia," Biesecker said, "affecting 130 million people and 350 transformers." Transformers, he noted, can take over a year to fix and they are not made in the U.S.

"This raises all kinds of geopolitical issues," said John Kappenman, a principal of Storm Analysis Consultants. Kappenman was the lead technical expert for a study conducted by the Metatech Corp. on the potential impact of solar storms. Transformers are made in Europe, Brazil, China and India. "If the blackout affected more than one country, the U.S. would not necessarily be the first in line to get one," he said.

A well-trained crew is required to install high-voltage transformers. They weigh over 100 tons and would have to be shipped via an ocean liner. "It could drag on for several weeks if the transportation sector is compromised."

Unlike a hurricane, Kappenman said the aftermath of a solar storm could be widespread, with 50% to 75% of the country affected. "We could have a blackout like never before," he said. It took only a few days to get back to normal after the 1977 or 2003 blackouts. "This time, you might not get back to normal at all."

There would be no immediate help from neighboring areas. It would be especially hard for big cities like New York. "You couldn't evacuate," he said. "Where do you put 8 million people?"