Sun storm may be 'global Katrina'
The risk of a devastating space storm wreaking havoc like a "global Katrina" and costing the world trillions of pounds should be taken "seriously", claims Britain's top scientist.
Professor Sir John Beddington, the British Government's chief scientist, said that the Sun was waking up from a quiet period and was likely to throw a lot more "space weather" at the Earth.
Also, the world was increasingly vulnerable to damage because of our dependence on satellites, communication networks and computer devices.
If a solar storm hit the Earth, it could throw out navigation systems, crash stock markets, ground aircraft and cause power cuts.
The financial fallout could cost £1.4bn in the US alone, claim experts.
"What is critical is that we take space weather seriously," said Sir John, speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Washington.
"We've had a relatively quiet period of space weather. We can't expect that to continue.
"The potential vulnerability of our systems has increased dramatically, whether it is the smart grid in our electricity systems or the use of GPS in just about everything we use these days."
Sir John said we needed to think about the ability to give an early warning when particular types of space weather were likely to occur.
The situation would only get increasingly serious because the solar cycle was heading into a period of more intense activity in the coming 11 years, said other scientists.
"This is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when and how big," said Jane Lubchenco, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator.
"The last time we had a period of increased solar activity, about 10 years ago, the world was a different place.
"Many things that we take for granted today, such as cell phones, are so much more prone to the process of space weather than was the case 10 years ago."
Juha-Pekka Luntama of the European Space Agency said: "We can't tell if there is going to be a big storm six months from now, but we can tell when conditions are ripe for one to take place."