Strong solar flares and coronal mass ejections can cause significant damage if they hit Earth, so experts are currently focused on developing methods of predicting space weather. This will be especially important over the next couple of years.
The Sun is scheduled to reach a new period of maximum activity in its 11-year cycle in 2013 and 2014, which means that it will produce numerous solar flares and CME. Vast volumes of plasma and charged particles will slam into Earth's magnetosphere, seeking to make their way through.
If this happens, the particle streams can easily burn out transformers, power grids and power plants, in addition to other electronic devices. At the same time, it can cause satellites in orbit to short-circuit, and could even adversely affect the International Space Station (ISS), endangering astronauts onboard.
Investigators want to be able to predict and detect solar flares in much the same way climate scientists can detect hurricanes. The latter are also able to determine how much damage a tropical storm will cause when it hits land, well before this actually happens.
Similarly, knowing how a solar flare travels through space can give us at least 2 or 3 days to prepare for their potential effects. Still, this field of science is still in its infancy. Researchers are now working towards developing more reliable methods of predicting space weather.
“We are living in a really, really exciting time right now. We are really witnessing the emergence of numerical space weather forecasting,” scientist Antti Pulkkinen said on December 6, at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. The conference is held in San Francisco, California.
The expert holds an appointment as a physicist at the Catholic University, in Washington, DC. He also holds an appointment at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), in Greenbelt, Maryland.
This particular solar maximum is bound to be very interesting in terms of space weather manifestations, since the last minimum was extremely deep and broad, similar to a similar instance back in the 1800s.
After two centuries of deep minimums and moderate-intensity maximums, researchers are now expecting to see the Sun unleash a powerful set of CME and solar storms in 2013 and 2014, Space reports.
The ultimate goal of space weather predictions is to be able to give authorities and businesses sufficient warning time to ensure that solar winds on their way to Earth do not catch us off-guard, and cause widespread damage.