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Space weather forecasters are bracing for a new season of intense sunspot activity that could begin by March and peak in 2012 -- and they worry that outages and damage could be even greater this time because the world has become increasingly dependent on wireless and cellular electronic networks. We are, therefore, even more susceptible to these sudden gales of solar wind.
"We are set up for a nasty surprise," said Thomas Bogdan, director of the federal Space Environment Center in Boulder, Colo., the largest of 13 international space weather warning centers. "There are going to be impacts on all these services in the next few years."
In a world in which even temporary service outages can pose problems, commercial satellite operators are often reluctant to discuss the impact of solar storms on their global networks, but technical reports prepared for the U.S. Commerce Department after severe solar storms in 2003 reveal just how widespread such problems can become.
he Defense Department lost control of three surveillance satellites over "high-interest areas" for 29 hours, while Japan permanently lost contact with a $640 million Earth observation satellite.
The geomagnetic storms also caused power outages in Northern Europe and a blackout in Sweden. They forced 13 U.S. nuclear power plants to take control-room precautions, so that the electrical surges wouldn't affect reactor operations.