In 2013, the earth will be attacked from space, with one possible outcome being mind-bogglingly severe disruption to our tech-centric way of life.
"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," says Richard Fisher, head of NASA's Heliophysics Division. "At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms."
Fisher's comments came during the run-up to last week's Space Weather Enterprise Forum 2010, at which scientists gathered to discuss how to prepare for the massive solar storms set to strike the earth in 2013.
"We know it is coming but we don’t know how bad it is going to be," Fisher told the Daily Telegraph. "It will disrupt communication devices such as satellites and car navigations, air travel, the banking system, our computers, everything that is electronic. It will cause major problems for the world."
The earth has been battered by solar storms before, but never has civilization been so vulnerable, since it's now so dependent upon both electrical and electronic infrastructure.
In pre-electronic and barely electrical 1859, a "perfect space storm" shorted out telegraph lines in the US and Europe, causing numerous fires. It also made the Northern Lights visible as far south as Rome, Havana and Hawaii, according to NASA — contemporary accounts relate how a group of campers in the Rocky Mountains were awakened by an "auroral light, so bright that one could easily read common print. Some of the party insisted that it was daylight and began the preparation of breakfast."
In 1921, a solar storm induced ground currents that crippled the New York transit system. In 1989, another solar storm brought down the entire Quebec power grid due to those pesky ground currents, and plunged six million people into darkness on a cold, cold Canadian night.
Fischer sees serious trouble ahead from the 2013 peak solar activity attacks. "I think the issue is now that modern society is so dependent on electronics, mobile phones and satellites, much more so than the last time this occurred," he said. "There is a severe economic impact from this. We take it very seriously. The economic impact could be like a large, major hurricane or storm."
That economic impact could be a "space weather Katrina," according to a 2008 report from the US National Academies of Sciences' Space Studies Board entitled Severe Space Weather Events: Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts.
"Strong auroral currents, which wreaked havoc with the telegraph networks during the  event," the report warns, "can disrupt and damage electric power grids and may contribute to the corrosion of oil and gas pipelines.
"Economic and societal costs attributable to impacts of geomagnetic storms could be of unprecedented levels," the report concludes. The cost of hurricane Katrina, estimated to be between $81bn and $125bn, would be piddling when compared to the effect of a "future severe geomagnetic storm scenario," which the report estimates could run as high as $1 trillion to $2 trillion in the first year. Depending on damage, the report contends, full recovery could take 4 to 10 years.
Scary estimates, indeed, but — as with that other scary eventuality, global climate change — preparation could help mitigate the effects of another "perfect space storm".
Fisher told the Telegraph that precautions could include, for example, creating power-grid backup systems so that if transformers or giant load-balancing capacitors are fried by a solar outburst, Plan B could go into effect. "If you know that a hazard is coming ... and you have time enough to prepare and take precautions, then you can avoid trouble," he said.
You can keep tabs on what the sun is throwing at us at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center. But don't worry too much — after all, if the Mayan calendar is correct, we need not fret about 2013. ®