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An intense geomagnetic storm began on February 25, 2010, during a particularly cold weather outbreak in the Northeastern U.S. and Northern Europe. Significant electric power grid problems occurred, and a massive power fluctuation affected the transmission grid. Within one hour, cascading power outages were reported throughout the eastern and mid-Atlantic U.S. and eastern Canada.
Power stations reported numerous generator step-up transformers and transmission transformers out of commission, with projected replacements and repairs taking weeks and even months. This raised immediate concern of a critical infrastructure collapse with loss of water distribution, sewage disposal, hospital care, phone service, and fuel resupply. Satellite outages were reported, and cell phones experienced significant service disruptions.
Significant problems were also reported in Northern Europe. Power outages were reported in large areas of southern Sweden, Scotland, Northern England, and the upper tip of Northern Europe. The power outage's effects on international air transport and financial markets were widespread.
The extreme geomagnetic storm lasted for 24 hours, ending late on February 26. Full recovery of the U.S. power grid is expected to take six months. Many populated areas are expected to be without power for weeks or months.
Although its peak is still four years away, a new active period of solar storms will be the weakest since 1928, predicts an international panel of experts led by NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center and funded by NASA. Despite the prediction, Earth is still vulnerable to a severe solar storm.
Solar storms are eruptions of energy and matter that escape from the sun and may head toward Earth, where even a weak storm can damage satellites and power grids, disrupting communications, the electric power supply and GPS. A single strong blast of "solar wind" can threaten national security, transportation, financial services and other essential functions.
The panel predicts the upcoming "Solar Cycle 24" will peak in May 2013 with 90 sunspots per day on average. If the prediction proves true, Solar Cycle 24 will be the weakest cycle since number 16, which peaked at 78 daily sunspots in 1928, and ninth weakest since the 1750s, when numbered cycles began.
The most common measure of a solar cycle's intensity is the number of sunspots-Earth-sized blotches on the sun marking areas of heightened magnetic activity. The more sunspots there are, the more likely it is that solar storms will occur, but a major storm can occur at any time.
"As with hurricanes, whether a cycle is active or weak refers to the number of storms, but everyone needs to remember it only takes one powerful storm to cause huge problems," said NOAA scientist Doug Biesecker, who chairs the panel. "The strongest solar storm on record occurred in 1859 during another below-average cycle." The storm shorted out telegraph wires, causing fires in North America and Europe, sent readings of Earth's magnetic field soaring, and produced northern lights so bright that people read newspapers by their light. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences found that if a storm that severe occurred today, it could cause $1-2 trillion in damages the first year and require four to 10 years for recovery.
As the world economy becomes more reliant on satellite-based communications and interlinked power grids, interest in solar activity has grown dramatically.
(excerpt from www.noaanews.noaa.gov...)