November 07, 2015
As essential to our very existence as the Sun may be, that scorching hot star could conceivably zap contemporary civilization out of commission, a $2 trillion catastrophe the White House is committing major resources to prevent.
Last week, the White House's National Science and Technology Council published a strategic plan to monitor the risk of a solar flare that would wipe out critical infrastructure including telecommunications systems, railways, gas and oil pipelines, satellites, and spacecraft, BusinessInsider reports.
The major threat comes in the form of subatomic particles that travel in solar winds at speeds reaching 1 million mph or faster. While Earth's magnetic field generally works to deflect the barrage of particles, an unusual spike could initiate an armageddon-type scenario within a matter of hours.
According to NASA, severe solar storms begin with magnetic eruptions on the Sun, which can inflame Earth's ionosphere with electrical currents produced by a "coronal mass ejection," or a burst of clouds carrying magnetic plasma. The most recent solar flare occurred in July 2012, an alarming near-miss that led to studies assessing potential damage up to $2.6 trillion with a recovery period of two years.
"You can think of the sun as kind of like a volcano," said Thomas Berger, director of NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center. "It's difficult to predict precisely when it's going to erupt, but you can see the signs building up."
Current technology enables the NOAA to detect signs of a surge within 12 to 15 hours, but the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), a 17-year-old buoy floating 932,000 miles from Earth, no longer leaves enough lead time for the White House's comfort.
ACE's replacement – the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite (DSCOVR) – launched in February of this year to take over duty under the command of NOAA. When it reaches its destination, it will be able to relay dangerous surge information to Earth within 15-60 minutes.
To coordinate efforts, the White House is working with two dozen national departments, agencies and service branches to create engineering standards, produce vulnerability assessments and prepare a response and recovery plan. The European Space Agency is also developing a detection network to monitor coronal mass ejections, joining together scientists across 14 nations.
How much do we have to be concerned about this doomsday scenario? One physicist, Pete Riley of Predictive Sciences Inc., says there is a 12 percent change such a storm will strike Earth by 2020. To put that in perspective, these were the same odds given for the likelihood of Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford tearing another ACL.
Learn more about solar flares in the video below.