back to article NASA warns of 'space Katrina' radiation storm

A study funded by NASA has flagged up yet another terrible hazard for those no longer able to get excited about nuclear war, global pandemics, terrorism, climate change, economic meltdown and asteroid strike. Top space brainboxes say that even if the human race survives all those, there is a serious risk of civilisation being …


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  1. Tom Silver badge

    So what theyre saying

    is that centralised generation is a no-no.

    We can build all the nuclear power stations that industry wants for its Keynseyan boost and it will be so much wasted effort* come a solar storm whereas the 'unreliable' local renewables and associuted power stores will still be functional?

    * or liability - three mile islands shows us its especially useful to have lots of power available when your nuke fails.

  2. Dave Ross


    Is it just me or have we totally given ourselves over to the doom-mongers in this day and age?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Wrap it in foil and earth it!

    Run for the hills, we are all going to die!

    In other news, mysery sells papers and there's nothing better than a good scare story to promote the climate of fear.

    Paris because she thought E.M.P stood for "eat my puppies"

  4. David Edwards
    Thumb Up

    Panic Buying

    Of tinfoil...

  5. David Harper

    Interesting historical precedents

    Solar flares have disrupted power grids and communications here on Earth before, of course. Back in the mid 19th century, telegraph operators discovered that their equipment often became inoperable whenever there was a strong auroral display. During major solar flare events, the currents induced in the long-distance telegraph cables generated dangerously high voltages which could stun telegraph operators if they were unwise enough to touch their equipment.

    There's an fascinating and very readable account of scientific efforts to understand the connection between solar activity, terrestrial magnetic storms and aurorae in Stuart Clark's excellent book "The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began".

  6. Syd

    Arthur C Clarke Got There First

    Sunstorm -

    (Not a bad book - co-written with Steven Baxter, who is a "serious" sci-fi writer.)

  7. dervheid

    The more we 'learn'...

    the more we realise just how little we have learned.

    "We're a' doomed!"

  8. Adrian

    Can I be the first to say

    All hail our new solar powered overlords who've taken out our technological infrastructure and put us (powerless) in the dark ages.

  9. Gordon Pryra
    Thumb Up


    Not me, so we return to a pastoral existance and never have to wonder why I am paying the BBC to produce "reality programs" with my licence fee.

    Anyway, I'm ready for it, i've tought myself to be able to whittle little wooden farmyard animals to sell to travelers on their way to the next village.

    Oh and i'm going to piss on the street with impunity now the CCTV system is down

    bring it on baby!!

  10. Elmer Phud

    Call for Bruce!

    and at the last moment Bruce Willis (for it is he) arrives above the planet in a space shuttle that was converted from a musem exhibit to fully working in just 12 hours, prepped and fuelled and a launch window all sorted out in 20 minutes. The cargo bay doors open, a huge roll of aluminium foil is revealed and is spread out just in time to sheild the entire free world (USA) from deadly radiation.

    Blackberrys still work and life can go on as before.

    I told you that Sat-nav is rubbish - like to see a mini-cab driver try and deliver passengers if a big one does happen.

  11. Shaun
    Paris Hilton

    This was on the telly

    One of those 'perfect storm' docu-dramas they show on Channel 5 covered this, but they mentioned an early warning satellite called SOHO that would allow the decision to be made to turn off the transformers (electrical as opposed to robotic) prior to the storm hitting us and thus preventing damage.

    I could of course have the wrong end of the stick as my grip of science is a little shaky at best.

    Paris 'cause she has a much firmer grip (though not of science).

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Other things can affect satellites at least at geostationary orbit - a catastrophic failure started by space debris.

    GPS is also never relied upon for mission-critical applications, because the US can switch it off at whim. The worst that SHOULD happen if it fails is that the driver of your train will have to open the doors manually because the system doesn't know what side the platform is on - as happened at Victoria Station where the GPS signal is too weak...

    PS It's Pearl Harbor - rare that El Reg uses a UK spelling when a US one is needed!

  13. Seán


    What about the poles flipping. That could bring t down the magnetic forcefield for an undetermined amount of time thereby cooking us all.

  14. Ken Hagan Gold badge

    Why bother?

    As with pandemics, asteroids and nearby supernovae, it all depends on the numbers. I doubt the costs and probabilities are known to anything like the level of accuracy required to decide one way or the other. Here are two reasons to do nothing.

    Firstly, if you are a provider of some key infrastructure service, why bother to harden your kit unless your competitors do as well. When the storm comes, all your competitors will be hit too, so they won't have an advantage. If the damage is really extensive then the government will get involved and the costs will be borne by society in general. (That is: the really big risk can be externalised.)

    Secondly, instead of spending money defending against the risk, why not just put aside a penny or two in a savings account. By the time the event actually happens, the savings account balance will be more than sufficient to pay for the repairs. (That is, if you can amortise the costs over a long enough period, they pretty much disappear.)

  15. Wonderkid

    Room for industry/gov innovation here...

    ... a) Shielding on our critical devices & infrastructure. b) Government publications (online + print backup) that inform the public what to do in event of solar storm. c) Switch to P2P communications and hybrid sustainable local / grid based power. If one fails the other is a fall back. If both fail, wrap up, jump up and down and eat veg from your allotment...

  16. Perpetual Cyclist

    This is old hat.

    There have been disaster movies already based on this scenario. I remember seeing one in which some astronauts got fried.

    File it under 'another potential disaster we can do nothing to prepare for, so may as well ignore'.

    In case you haven't noticed, we have already entered 'the long emergency' as industrial society collides head on with finite global resource constraints. I would be very surprised if GPS satellites are still operating when this solar storm hits.

    Try reading 'The Collapse of Complex Societies' by Tainter or less academically, 'Collapse' by Diamond. 'The Long Descent' by Grier sounds good, too.

  17. Craig Vaughton

    So what they're saying is....

    ...give us more money for "research" and to keep us in a job.

  18. Andy Barber

    Act of God

    Would the US use tax payers $'s, to defend its self from an 'Act of God'?

  19. James

    Electrical Grids

    Are these vulnerable even if underground?

  20. Damn Yank

    I'm with Gordon Pryra on this one...

  21. weirdcult
    Thumb Up

    i'm all right Jack

    got Bear Grylls and Ray Mears books for Crissy...........oh and a lighting flint.

  22. Mark

    What if...

    We give up some of our civil liberties? Would that allow the government to protect us from radiant energy emitted by the sun?

  23. Nano nano

    Howzat ?

    "which will allow errors to be bowled out" - but how ? LBW ?

  24. Gre Horse

    What is this all about?

    Isn't it odd that these kinds of scare stories show up instead of the ones about the coming ice age? With the sun at the lowest levels ever seen in the modern age, you would think there might be a few stories focusing on that aspect.

    Maybe an advance of the next 'we are all going to melt' isaster movie?

    If you want to check up on the sun, and add your encouragement for it to get well soon, here is a cool website run by and Ham radio type ...

    Nope, not my site and nope, no affiliation at all.

  25. Psymon
    Black Helicopters

    The world is coming to an end!

    and it's all thanks to the evil conspiracy behind the FCC.

    Need I bring your attention to Part 15 of the FCC compliance regulation?

    "(2) this device must accept any interference that may be received or that may cause undesired operation."

    I have NEVER understood the reasoning behind that second clause!

  26. Graham Marsden

    @Wrap it in foil and earth it!

    > Run for the hills, we are all going to die!

    Nonono! Up on top of the hills is more dangerous because there's less between you and the solar event!

    You need to get down the deepest mineshaft around...

  27. Anonymous Coward

    Not much new

    This has all been known for some time, though perhaps not analyzed in such detail. NOAA does space weather monitoring and prediction, and has interesting scales for reporting the severity of events:

  28. James
    Thumb Down

    Why Katrina?

    It has nothing to do with Katrina. It's just scaremongering.

    I can almost imagine them sitting around a table thinking what can we call this? I know space Katrina!

    How about space 9/11 (tm) or space 2004Tsunami (tm).

    or space Rape (tm)? Like date rape you won't know what hit you.


  29. Dalen

    Two words

    "Solar flares"

  30. Alan Brown Silver badge

    A lot of the events are dealable with


    It comes down to better hardening of satellites and maintaining sensible engineering practices on the ground, but it adds to costs.

    The last big flare which hit us head on was in the 1950s and it knocked out power grids worldwide, among other things (lots of interesting radio effects, aurora, etc..)

    Spark gaps and other small/cheap devices work wonders in keeping induced spikes in the HV distribution systems out of local mains, but aren't widely used and they have a nice side effect of reducing susceptability to EMP caused by high altitude nukes (The "pulse" weapon of several scifi writers...)

    My biggest worry is the risk of losing _large_ distribution transformers in such an event.

    The biggest ones are limited in number (50,000 worldwide), in critical positions in power grids, take several months/years to construct and have astonishingly low numbers of spares set aside. I'd rather mitigating stepas were taken NOW than to find that power's out/restricted across much of western europe/North america/SE asia for 5 years because some beancounter put profit over disaster-survivability.

    For the poster who worried about magnetic pole reversal - it looks like it's already happening (south atlantic anomaly etc), but it's highly unlikely that the fields will go away altogether and more likely the field will get "complex" with a number of north/south magnetic poles appearing and moving about.

  31. Chris Fleming
    Paris Hilton


    Cool picture of the sun man....

    Paris, cause she knows how to fix this world. Quote "Wear happy clothes" Smart blond lady.

  32. NewsView

    Self Sufficiency is the Answer

    Brainboxes? That is a flippant description for some of the most educated people in society, don't you think? The article, in a sarcastic sort of way, seems almost apologetic for not performing the mainstream media function of helping us tune out and dumb down.

    To comment on the subject itself: Disaster happens. It is not a matter of if, but when. The group I feel most sympathy for in a disaster scenario of any kind are those who rely on medications they will no longer be able to obtain for conditions that would otherwise prove life threatening (the twin epidemics of asthma and diabetes come to mind, for instance).

    The second thing I take away from this news is that centralization is perhaps the worst idea modern man has dreamt up. The greatest irony about modern civilization, seemingly, is this: The more technology and transportation improves, the less the average person is capable of living independently. Economic problems, as this past year has shown us, no longer remain isolated and discrete; centralization of information, technology, transportation, economies and power have carved massive channels allowing one part of the world's problem to spill over into another. So when the going is good, it is very, very good. But when the going gets tough, it comes in worldwide busting proportions. You do the math. Does this sound like a sustainable form of economic, political and social organization?

    The same "small world effect" that causes public health officials to fear bird flu pandemic jumping the oceans on a jet liner in a matter of hours is the same mechanism by which entire societies are at risk be it an Act of God or political unrest. Didn't our ancestors warn against such logic in that trite little cliche which holds: "Don't place all of your eggs in a single basket"? This is the most basic of human principles but our modern age and relative prosperity and good fortune in the latter half of the 20th Century has seduced us into forgetting that truism. So it is that much of the developed world relies on technologies and services, particularly transportation of food, water, medicine and fuel, that take place hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Essentially we have "gone soft" as a civilization and don't have the ability to self sustain the way prior generations did. Whether a Katrina-like Solar Storm materializes or not, this is an issue we are going to have to confront. If we refuse, Mother Nature or economic collapse will have a way of forcing the issue, I fear.

    Didn't the Black Death kill primarily people who were centralized in cities, whereas the rural dwellers, growing their own food and limiting their exposure to overcrowded conditions were mostly spared? NOT that everyone can or should live in a countryside. At minimum, however, every city or town ought to have some food growing and water purification capacity. That would be a good start whether the threat stems from terrorism, war, Mother Nature or a freak accident. If our technology has accomplished so much, it should be capable of being engineered in such a way that millions of people are no longer vulnerable to the smallest of hiccups. In this respect, it ought to be a no brainer: Compartmentalization and redundancy of key industries and services are not hallmarks of waste or inconvenience, they are systems of self preservation in the event of the unthinkable.

    The lessons of history have not changed. What has changed is our assumption that nothing can or will disrupt modern societies on a mass scale. But the truth is, governments, like power grids, won't function well if they are overly centralized. Whereas the 20th Century paradigm was industrialization and globalization, the 21st Century paradigm should be technology and information in service to local and individual self sufficiency. And that's not exactly an impossible goal. To the contrary, it amounts to knowing your local resources, and implementing technology to expand capacity to sustain community residents. Victory Gardens, for instance, became commonplace in the US during World War II. We need more of that kind of back-to-the-fundamentals thinking and less assumption that our technology is some sort of insulator against reality.

    None of this is to say that we ought to spurn global trade or high technology. Rather, it is a reminder that striking a "happy medium" between two seemingly contrary goals is the wiser form of infrastructure and commerce. Whereas the 20th Century assumed that globalization would solve all of our problems, the 21st Century may prove for once and for all that we took a good concept and expected far too much from it (in terms of economic prosperity, safety or just about any other promise we thought the "small world concept" would deliver upon).

    Bottom line? This sort of news it can be brushed off as Chicken Little warning that the sky is falling, or it can serve as an opportunity to think out far enough ahead to not only survive but capitalize on new economic, political and technological realities. Here is our choice when confronted with such realities: Look to our recent past and promise ourselves that nothing ever changes, or look to the future and bank on the fact that it will. Personally, I feel denial is a reaction that stems from helplessness (the "flight" response), whereas gearing ourselves up mentally and spirituality for new possibilities is the healthy and positive way of adapting to change (the "fight" response). Fight vs. flight. The choice is ours. Are we going to prepare, or say it ain't so?

  33. poitsplace

    Two words...SOLAR MINIMUM

    As someone else has already pointed out, ALL evidence points to the next few solar cycles being incredibly weak. Currently estimates show the next cycle's maximum pushed back to 2013 at the earliest. Estimates of it's overall sunspot peaks range from a maximum of 120 to well below 80. As the sunspot cycle's energies are (more or less) exponential in nature...the odds of any major flares AT ALL are extremely low.

    It's not all good news though, between the solar minimum and the recent change in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (ocean currents taking 50-60 years to cycle between highs and lows, dragging global temperatures with them) ... temperatures will most likely fall below 1970's levels within a decade.

  34. Alan Brown Silver badge

    falling temps and solar minimums

    1: Falling temps due to reduced solar output will give us a litttle extra time to try and mitigate greenhouse gas levels (IF it happens long term, we don't have enough data to know if the next few solar cycles will be weak or not. I work with various researchers who look at the sun and THEY don't know one way or the other yet)

    2: Even with reduced solar flare activity, the issue isn't how many or how big they are - it's if one ends up hitting us directly. Thankfully this is a fairly rare occurance but the issue is lack of robustness and forward planning in the power and communications networks.

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