After a prolonged period of minimal activity, it appears as if our Sun has woken up, and with a vengeance. During the three day period between February 13-15th, the sun experienced a series of solar storms culminating in an X-class solar flare - the strongest kind - and an earth directed Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), which is a massive blast of solar wind, plasma and magnetic fields. Spectacular on their own account, solar flares, which are typically (but not always) associated with sun spot activity, can leap huge distances off the surface of the sun and engulf areas of space that are several times the size of planet earth. They are truly awe-inspiring events. When accompanied by an earth directed CME, however, such tempestuous behavior can rapidly ruin your day.
Turbulent solar activity is not a new thing, of course. For as long as our bright star has been up there, scientists agree that it has experienced recurring cycles of minimal and maximum activity. Like Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, apparently our sun suffers a perennial split personality, one that reveals itself (generally) on an 11-year cycle, commonly referred to as the 'Sunspot Cycle'. During a 'Solar Minimum' the sun is quiet and experiences little solar activity; during a maximum, however, things get really interesting with massive solar storms, sunspot clusters and, yes, Coronal Mass Ejections. Our recent solar maximum, due to peak sometime in late 2012 (there is that year again) or early 2013, is predicted by many experts to be one of the most active in recorded history. This should concern you.
The National Academy of Sciences released a report in 2008 titled Severe Space Weather Events: Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts. In the preliminary abstract, the authors waste no time in getting your attention,
"Because of the interconnectedness of critical infrastructures in modern society, the impacts of severe space weather events can go beyond disruption of existing technical systems and lead to short-term as well as long-term collateral socioeconomic disruptions. Electrical power is modern society's cornerstone technology, the technology on which virtually all other infrastructures and services depend. Collateral effects of [a major space weather event] would likely include, for example, disruption of the transportation, communication, banking and finance systems, and government services; the breakdown of the distribution of potable water owing to pump failure and the loss of perishable foods and medications because of lack of refrigeration."
Sounds pretty bad. How is this possible?
Without getting bogged down in the physics, essentially, when massive amounts of energized plasma are ejected in an earthbound trajectory from a Coronal Mass Ejection, it slams into the earth's magnetosphere, creating a geomagnetic storm which can severely disrupt telecommunications, satellite technology and even fry electrical grids across the planet. The stronger the CME, the greater the potential for geomagnetic disturbances on the ground. This is not idle speculation; such events have already occurred. In 1989, two relatively minor earth-directed solar events brought the Hydro-Quebec electrical utility to is knees, resulting in a complete shut-down. Millions of people lost power. And those were minor events.
To throw insult upon injury, according to some researchers, the earth's protective magnetic field -- our shield from solar storms -- is currently in a weakened state. And depending on the relationship between the earth and the sun's magnetic fields and the interplay between these two forces at the time of a major CME event, we could potentially experience a 'shields down' scenario during a solar storm event; and in fact such a scenario is predicted to happen right about when our current solar cycle is predicted to peak -- 2012 [See Lawrence E. Joseph, Aftermath, pp.35-42].
So, here is your scenario: Massive solar storms from one of the worst solar maximums in recorded history, with earth directed CME's blasting through a weakened magnetic shield resulting in global infrastructure shut down taking months, if not years to reset.
Now you know why so many scientists are concerned, and why you should be prepared.
Stay tuned, the Sun is ramping up for the show of a lifetime. We hear the view from earth is pretty good. Seats are still available...but the question is -- are you ready for the show?
Here Comes The Sun.
Stay safe. Stay informed. Be prepared.