Scientists are forecasting `space weather' in an attempt to cope with a worrisome peak in solar flares expected to coincide with the arrival of the third millennium.
Call it a "solar El Nino," an increasingly troublesome aspect of the sun that should make itself known about the year 2000. That's when our nearest star will reach a condition called solar max, the peak of the sunspot cycle. The cycle will wreak mischief not only with navigation and telecommunications technology but also with increasingly important electric power grids.
Solar max is the culmination of a cycle in the sun's thermonuclear reactions that has persisted with clockwork precision for uncounted centuries. About every 11 years, the sun's energy peaks, generating changes in its appearance and effects. Sunspots, dark islands of relatively cool gases on the star's surface, and solar flares, or huge emissions of gas and electromagnetic waves, both increase. Solar wind--streams of high-energy particles radiating in all directions--can achieve a hurricanelike intensity.
For most of recorded history, the only terrestrial signs of these events were dazzling auroras as the solar wind interacted with Earth's magnetic field near the poles. With exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum, however, solar max became increasingly disruptive. During World War II, it temporarily knocked out all high-frequency radio traffic in England. A more serious event occurred in 1989, the last peak in the cycle, when a solar storm resulted in a blown voltage regulator on the Hydro-Quebec Power Grid in Canada. Within two minutes, a cascade of broken circuits across the province caused a power blackout that cost Hydro-Quebec at least $10 million and lasted several days.
The disruptions in 2000 will be worse, and the threat threefold, according to Sunanda Basu, an atmospheric scientist with the National Science Foundation and a pioneer in space weather research:
* Large solar flares could trip circuit breakers in power grids all over the northern latitudes. Long-line interconnections among electric companies across North America could result in a domino effect.
* High-energy solar particles may spell trouble for miniature electronic components of satellites. Ironic, but advances in technology to make satellites cheaper and more reliable might result in their destruction.
* Ionospheric scintillation, an electromagnetic disturbance of the upper atmosphere caused by bombardment of solar particles, may cause the most havoc. …