How worried should we be about solar storms?

The Sun is entering a period of seriously intense solar activity, releasing huge volleys of charged particles and plasma blobs into space, including the recent Valentine's Day X-class flare, the most extreme in years. So how much of a threat do these flares really pose, and how prepared are we for a seriously disruptive solar storm? That, as it turns out, is a seriously tricky question to answer.

The solar cycle lasts roughly eleven years, and the next peak is expected in 2013. Right now, we're in the 24th solar cycle since human observation of the phenomena began in 1755. Experts had already tabbed this particular cycle to be a weak one, with only about ninety sunspots forming during the cycle's peak. Historically speaking, that's practically nothing, and so far the evidence seems to suggest we might not even be in for half that much, making this the weakest cycle ever.

But even in a weak cycle, it is possible for the Sun to send out an extreme coronal mass ejection or charged particle storm, such as the X-class flare that was observed a few days ago. Such flares can supercharge the northern and southern lights, creating some truly spectacular auroras. In this case, the flare also had some moderate effects in western Asia and over the Pacific, briefly knocking out radio communications and forcing some airlines to reroute their planes away from the polar routes to avoid radio problems.

Now, those are obviously some tangible effects, and it would be a mistake to call this particular flare completely harmless (a mistake I made in my earlier post). But this is hardly doomsday scenario material, so what exactly is the sensible middle ground in all this? According to US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco, the potential for a truly dangerous solar flare exists, and we need to be ready:

"This is not a matter of if, it's simply a matter of when and how big. We have every reason to expect we're going to be seeing more space weather in the coming years, and it behooves us to be smart and be prepared. I think the events of this week certainly underscore how important it is for us to be paying attention to space weather and to be prepared to respond to, and mitigate, potential impacts. As we enter into a period of enhanced solar activity it seems pretty clear that we are going to be looking at the possibility of not only more solar events but also the possibility of some very strong events."

There's an obvious question here - if the Sun reaches its maximum every eleven years, why wasn't this a big deal back in the early 2000s? Well, a decade can make a big difference, particularly in our dependence on GPS, cell phones, and satellite-driven telecommunications, all of which are particularly vulnerable to a strong storm. And there are still more traditional concerns, like the transformers and capacitors that link together our power grids. A strong geomagnetic storm in 1989 knocked out Quebec's power for about nine hours as well as sending satellites in polar orbits hurtling briefly out of control.

Some experts have thrown around the possibility of yearlong blackouts, but this thankfully seems to be relatively unlikely. We're getting better at forecasting upcoming solar storms, and power grids are already being overhauled to minimize the damage from a severe geomagnetic event. The one complicating factor here is that a serious space weather event will require unusual levels of international cooperation, potentially without all communication channels being readily available. Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency head Helana Lindberg explains the situation:

"There are few emergency scenarios today that require such close cooperation across the Atlantic as a geomagnetic storm. [We have an] urgent need to start sharing expertise and connecting our systems for warning and for response. This cooperation has to be put in place before a disaster hits."

So where does this leave us? Solar flares can be dangerous, particularly now that we're heavily dependent on technologies that can be heavily affected by them. We're not as prepared as we really should be, but there's still reason to be optimistic that we can at least partially shield ourselves. And, if nothing else, the apparently weak nature of this particular cycle could mean we've got at least another decade before we really have to worry about a severe storm. It's one of those cases that lands somewhere between "There's absolutely nothing to worry about" and "We're all going to die!", and the best advice we can offer comes from the European Commission's Stephen Lechner:

"Please don't panic. Please don't leave the room and tell everybody that space weather will kill us tomorrow."