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John von Radowitz, Press Association Science Correspondent, in Washington DC
Press Association Mediapoint
February 22, 2011

The world needs to wake up to the threat of solar storms with the potential to cause a trillion-pound technological meltdown, the Government's chief scientific adviser has warned.

A 10 year lull in the Sun's activity had coincided with the growth of vulnerable satellite-based technologies such as the internet and GPS, said Professor Sir John Beddington.

But the Sun was due to become more turbulent as it approaches the next ``solar maximum'' peak in its activity cycle in around 2013.

Experts fear a ``perfect solar storm'' blasting the Earth with energetic particles could have a catastrophic impact on communications and commerce, with losses estimated at up to two trillion dollars (1.23 trillion).

It was vital that governments and agencies worked together to minimise the danger, said Sir John.

He told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC: ``The issue of space weather has got to be taken seriously.

``We've had a relatively quiet period of space weather. We can't expect that quiet period to continue. At the same time over that period the potential vulnerability of our systems has increased dramatically, whether it is the smart grid in our electricity systems or the ubiquitous use of GPS in just about everything we use these days.

``The situation has changed. We need to be thinking about the ability both to categorise and explain and give early warning when particular types of space weather are likely to occur.''

Better science and engineering solutions were also needed to safeguard satellites and other systems, said Sir John.

Solar storms typically begin with a flare on the surface of the Sun generating a powerful radiation burst that can knock out communications and GPS signals.

This is followed by waves of sub-atomic particles and electrified gas travelling at up to five million miles an hour which can cripple satellites and trip out power grids.

The most powerful solar storm on record, in 1859, sent induced currents surging through telegraph wires that set buildings on fire.

Experts told the meeting that last week's widely reported solar flare, the strongest in four years, could be a foretaste of things to come.

Despite being a relatively weak event, it resulted in airlines re-routing flights away from polar regions and disrupted communications in parts of the western Pacific and Asia.

Dr Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington DC said: ``As we enter a period of enhanced solar activity and approach the solar maximum it's quite reasonable to expect more and more events and they may vary in magnitude. I think the watch words are predict and prepare.''

Currently there is only one satellite in space with the specific job of detecting solar storms, and it is 14 years old.

Scientists hope to replace it with a new satellite, called Discover, in 2014.

Forecasting space weather was at the same stage today as meteorology was in the 1950s and 60s, said Dr Tom Bogdan, director of the Space Weather Prediction Centre in Boulder, Colorado.

``Right now our forecast capabilities are not as good as they need to be,'' he added.

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