VIOLENT sun storms are reaching their 11-year cyclical peak this year, the so-called solar maximum, and the potential for earthly damage is greater than ever.
With ever more reliance on vulnerable networks of technology, the Earth's power grids and radio communications and even space satellites can sustain heavy damage from a blast of solar radiation.
But scientists are finding new ways to predict these massive solar eruptions and give more time to protect satellites and power systems from the brunt of the storms.
Detecting sound waves from flare-ups on the far side of the sun, scientists recently were able to "see" through the massive body and use computer-analysis to forecast storms. Since the sun rotates every 27 days, that's a potential warning of nearly two weeks. Current systems provide only a few days notice of whether a particular storm will strike our planet.
Another scientific team this year reported finding ripples on the face of the sun that indicate earthquake-like disturbances on its far side. The team used data from the sun-study spacecraft SOHO, a joint project of Europe and the United States. Six weeks ago, NASA launched the first space-weather satellite to monitor solar turbulence.
Monitoring of solar storms is of rising importance. A storm in 1989, the last peak for the solar cycle, knocked out electric transformers serving 6 million people in Quebec and the Northeast. Two years ago, most North American pocket pagers were knocked out by a solar blast.
The number of cell phones in North America has increased a hundredfold since 1989, and there are four times as many working satellites in orbit. With adequate storm warnings, power systems could be rerouted and certain ones shut down for protection. Fragile satellite functions could be cut off, or communications links switched.
So far in this solar maximum, storms have been slow in developing. But scientists know that it is simply a matter of time, and they hope better warning systems will minimize the punch.