Time to get afraid? Solar activity begins to peak – how big will the electro-magnetic pulse be this time?

About eighteen months ago, I attended a meeting on the possible effects of electro-magnetic pulses on electrical and technical systems.  As I commented at the time:

“And as if the threat from a rogue state or terrorists was not enough, electromagnetic pulses can occur naturally as part of solar activity. Avi Schnurr quoted the US National Academy of Sciences as warning that solar activity can produce effects of equivalent magnitude and does so approximately every hundred years or so.  The last such massive solar surge was in 1859 and shorted out telegraph wires and caused widespread fires.  The next occasion when there might be such a surge is 2012 (although it might not be the big one, but that is when the next peak of solar activity is anticipated).”

The BBC reports today that:

“The Sun has unleashed its strongest flare in four years, observers say.

The eruption is a so-called X-flare, the strongest type; such flares can affect communications on Earth.

Nasa’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) spacecraft recorded an intense flash of extreme ultraviolet radiation emanating from a sunspot.

The British Geological Survey (BGS) has issued a geomagnetic storm warning, and says observers might be able to see aurorae from the northern UK.

The monster flare was recorded at 0156 GMT on 15 February and directed at the Earth.

Preliminary data from the Stereo-B and Soho spacecraft suggest that the explosion produced a fast but not particularly bright coronal mass ejection (CME) – a burst of charged particles released into space.”

The report goes on:

“Displays of the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) have already been seen further south than usual in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the UK. And further solar activity is expected over the next few days.

Researchers say the Sun has been awakening after a period of several years of low activity.”

Is it time to get worried?

A few months I asked a Parliamentary Question about all this:

Lord Harris of Haringey

    To ask Her Majesty’s Government what were the outcomes of the workshop on severe space weather and the threat of a major electromagnetic pulse announced by Baroness Neville-Jones at the Electric Infrastructure Security summit in September. [HL3149]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Neville-Jones): The Cabinet Office workshop held on 21 September 2010 was attended by representatives from the communications, transport and energy sectors, government, regulators, and space weather experts from both the UK and the US. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the likelihood and severity of future space weather events and the impact on infrastructure.

The meeting discussed how a reasonable worst case scenario could be formulated, based on historical data. A newly formed space environmental impact experts group (SEIEG) is now working with Cabinet Office to formulate quantitative assessments of the reasonable worst case scenario of the different solar phenomena that comprise a severe space weather event.”

So the good news (heavy irony) is that the Government may have got round to working out what “the reasonable worst case scenario” might be.

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