One of the biggest scare stories for years is about to be revealed. British Secretary of Defense Liam Fox warns that the electricity grid, financial networks and transport infrastructure could be paralyzed by a solar flare.
There is a growing threat of electromagnetic disruption to the underpinnings of modern life, the Defense Secretary will tell a meeting of scientists and security advisers this week.
Dr. Fox tells the conference that he wants to address the “vulnerabilities” in the nation’s hi-tech infrastructure.
“As the nature of our technology becomes more complex, the threat becomes more widespread as well,” he says.
Of course any one living off the grid would be largely immune to such a scenario, and there is evidence that the entire story is just a hoax – Australia’s leading body responsible for monitoring space weather has dismissed claims that a massive solar storm could wipe out the Earth’s entire power grid.
One report quotes an Australian astronomer saying that “the storm is likely to come sooner rather than later”.
But Dr. Phil Wilkinson, the assistant director of the Bureau of Meteorology’s Ionospheric Prediction Service, says claims that this coming solar maximum will be the most violent in 100 years are not factual.
“All this talk about gloom and doom has selling power, but I’m certain it’s overstated,” he said.
“[It’s] going far beyond what’s realistic and could be worrying or concerning for people who don’t really understand the underlying science behind it all.
“The real message should be that the coming solar maximum period could be equally as hazardous as any other solar maximum.”
The sun goes through an 11-year solar cycle moving from a period of low activity called solar minimum to a time of heightened activity called solar maximum.
During solar maximum there is an increase in sun spot activity, which are dark patches on the sun’s surface caused by magnetic field lines breaking through the sun’s surface.
Because the Sun is not a solid object like the Earth, different parts of it rotate at different speeds, which cause these magnetic field lines to twist and stretch, eventually snapping like elastic bands.
When they snap, they produce an eruption of electromagnetic energy called a solar flare and are sometimes accompanied by a coronal mass ejection (CME).
If directed at Earth, charged particles within the CME slam into the magnetosphere, resulting in the northern and southern auroral lights.
Previous CME events have damaged spacecraft, interfered with communications systems and overloaded ground-based power grids. But despite the potential threat, Dr. Wilkinson says authorities are aware of them and are taking precautions.
“We monitor solar activity and issue warnings if something is heading our way,” he said.
“That will be at least a few hours [in advance], enough time to prepare.”
He says while some satellites could be damaged by a future CME, others could be protected by being placed in “safe mode”.
Furthermore, Dr. Wilkinson adds that the impact on power grids would be minimal.
“At worst, it’s a regional thing, not a global thing as these reports imply,” he said.
He says high frequency communications may also be affected, but it would be temporary.
In addition, Dr. Wilkinson quipped that the sun has been through a long solar minimum and appears to be heading into a low solar maximum.
Previous observations have shown this could result in high spikes of CME activity.
“It means we could see auroral activity over all of Australia rather than just the higher latitudes,” Dr.Wilkinson said.
“It’s unusual, but not unprecedented. James Cook made mention of just such an event off Timor.”
“While we all benefit from the products of scientific advances so we also create vulnerabilities that can be exploited by our enemies.
“However advanced we become the chain of our security is only as strong as its weakest link.”
The Coalition’s defense review is considering potential weaknesses against hi-tech attack or disruption. While conventional military units will be cut back, cyberwarfare and other technology driven capabilities are likely to get more money when the review is concluded.
Much of the Ministry of Defense’s planning focuses on the risk of a hostile state exploding a nuclear weapon in space, creating a sudden, intense burst of electromagnetic energy called a high altitude electromagnetic pulse. It could shut down electrical equipment including computers vital to daily life and cripple satellites. One “nightmare scenario” being privately discussed by senior defense figures involves Iran detonating a device high over Europe. “They could reduce our civilization to the dark ages,” said one insider.
Some scientists believe that there is a similar danger from a once-in-a-century solar flare, a disturbance on the sun’s surface that could cause geomagnetic storms on earth.
One in the mid-19th century blocked the nascent telegraph system, and some scientists believe that another is overdue.
The Westminster meeting is being hosted by the Electric Infrastructure Security Council and the Henry Jackson Society, a think-tank, and it will be addressed by Avi Schnurr, a former US government adviser.
The electrical grids, computers, telephones, transportation, water supply and food production are all vulnerable to a major flare, said Mr. Schnurr, who also works for a lobby group called Israel Missile Defense Association.
“Our electrical infrastructures are so ubiquitous that an EMP or geomagnetic storm could shatter nations all over Earth, and we cannot wait for disaster to spur us to action,” he said.