Don't panic over those reports that solar storms could cause high-tech disruptions in 2013. But don't ignore them either. That's the word from NASA Headquarters' top guy for solar science.
Concerns about the potential for an unprecedented assault from space were stoked last week by a report in London's Telegraph, warning that a super storm could cause "catastrophic consequencies for the world's health, emergency services and national security unless precautions are taken."
The warnings focus on the 2012-2013 time frame, because that's when the 11-year solar activity cycle is expected to peak. Back in 2006, solar scientists said the coming peak, known as solar maximum or "solar max," could be 30 to 50 percent stronger than the last one, based on a computer model that looked at how plasma circulates between the sun's equator and its poles.
Since then, additional reports have added to the concern: In 2008, a National Academy of Sciences study said a severe geomagnetic storm could cause $2 trillion in damage and require as much as a decade of recovery time. In comparison, the damage estimate for Hurricane Katrina is a mere $80 billion or so.
Amid all the hype about a 2012 Maya apocalypse, there's been increasing talk about the potential for a solar superstorm on the scale of 1859's "Carrington event," which shorted out telegraph wires, sparked fires and set off auroral displays as far south as Cuba. The fear is that the damage would be more severe in this world of GPS navigation, satellite communications and mobile devices.
The Telegraph's article quoted Richard Fisher, the head of NASA's Heliospheric Division at the space agency's Washington headquarters, as saying that a superstorm would "cause major problems for the world."
"It will disrupt communication devices such as satellites and car navigation, air travel, the banking system, our computers, everything that is electronic," he told the Telegraph.
When I caught up with Fisher, his forecast was less dire, and less definite: He told me it's far too early to say just how strong the next solar maximum will be. In fact, some experts are now predicting that the intensity will be well below average, based on the fact that the sun has been unusually quiet in recent years.
"The next maximum is anticipated to be somewhere around the lowest ever seen to a little bit higher than the highest that's ever been seen," Fisher said half-jokingly. "I think it was Yogi Berra who said ... the problem with predictions is that they all take place in the future."
But Fisher doesn't joke about the need to be prepared for the potential disruptions caused by space weather. A bad solar storm could easily have a negative impact on everyday life. For example, air traffic over the North Pole has increased dramatically since the previous solar maximum in 2001. If severe geomagnetic storms were to sweep past Earth, those flights would have to be shifted farther south to guard against communication disruptions. This year's Icelandic ash mess suggests how a situation like that might affect global travel and commerce.
"It has a fairly large economic impact on an airline if you have to divert an airliner," Fisher noted.
Fortunately, the methods for predicting space weather have improved over the past decade or two. Satellites such as the Advanced Composition Explorer can spot the signs of a geomagnetic storm up to an hour before it hits our planet, providing valuable lead time for power grid operators. (A space storm in 1989 sparked a nine-hour electrical blackout in Quebec, affecting 6 million customers and costing the power company more than $10 million.) Other observing instruments, which measure seismic activity originating on the far side of the sun, can provide a couple of weeks of warning about active sunspot regions.
So how bad does Fisher think things can get in 2013?
"I think there's a relatively high probability that there will be a solar event that will have some effect over hours to tens of hours. That's pretty high in the next 10 years," he told me. "I think that it's a low probability but a very high-impact circumstance for a large solar event that disrupts infrastructure for periods of longer than a day or two."
He doesn't advise preparing for Armageddon, but he does suggest that you have an emergency supply of food, water and the other things you need to weather a disaster. Which is good advice whether or not a superstorm hits in 2013.
"In modern life, you want to understand how vulnerable you are," Fisher said. "A good big winter storm will knock out the local power delivery for hours to a day or two. I keep a little water around the house in case that situation happens. There are alternate systems for providing power to hospitals, critical records and things like that. I think it'll be inconvenient, as opposed to ... well, not necessarily deadly, for goodness' sake."
Update for 9:15 p.m. ET: Just how vulnerable are our satellite-based communication systems to outbursts from the sun? For another perspective on the superstorm hype, I checked with Joseph Mazur, associate director of the space science department at The Aerospace Corp.
"At Aerospace, when we're working with our national security customers and commercial customers and even NASA, we're really focused on the space systems working throughout the extremes of the space environment," Mazur said. "So we do our work before the spacecraft is launched."
The Aerospace Corp. works with satellite builders and operators to make sure their spacecraft can stand up to the worst-case scenario for space weather. That scenario is based on previous observations, and not on hypothetical speculation about how bad things might have gotten in 1859. "There's not much information about what the specific hazards were like for that event. ... In mission design, there is currently no way to account for an event that exceeds the previous worst case," Mazur said.
Mazur wanted to clear up a couple of misconceptions about outbursts from the sun: First of all, he said, "I really have a problem with the whole phrase 'solar storm,' because in the public literature, it connotes something that comes from the sun. ... The problem is that you can't just put all of space weather into one term." In reality, space weather takes in a spectrum of phenomena - ranging from outbursts of radio interference that travel at the speed of light, to eruptions of electrically charged particles that take more than an hour to reach Earth and interact with our planet's magnetosphere.
Another misconception is that space weather events occur only at solar max. "Impacts from the space environment aren't really correlated with the solar cycle very well. ... What we try to advise our customers is that there are space environment hazards that are there all the time," he said. "Some occur with higher probablility in the years around solar maximum, but nobody really plans their missions around the sunspot number."
In fact, a significant geomagnetic event occurred just a couple of months ago, in April. Was there any impact on satellites? "There may have been," Mazur said. "There's nothing I can tell you in this forum. It was an enhancement of the environment that we haven't seen for a number of years, since December of 2006."
Bottom line? Once again, it pays to be prepared, in 2010 just as much as in 2013.
The lead federal agency for space weather is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency that has the National Weather Service under its wing as well. Click on over to the Space Weather Prediction Center to find out what's up, learn how a G4 storm is different from an R4, and sign up for e-mail alerts. Another must-see website is SpaceWeather.com, which provides solar activity updates as well as fantastic pictures of sights in the sky.