Solar storm could disrupt Summer Olympics

March 9, 2012 at 3:30 AM
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GUILDFORD, England, March 9 (UPI) -- The Summer Olympics could be crippled by a solar storm far more potent than the one currently wearing away at Earth's magnetic field, a British physicist said. "We have the potential this year to see what planners call a Black Swan event -- one that is unlikely but if it happens will have an extraordinary impact on our lives," Alan Woodward, a physicist and computer scientist at England's University of Surrey, told the British newspaper The Guardian. "The last similar event was the Japanese tsunami, which caused massive physical damage," he said. The devastating earthquake and tsunami -- whose first anniversary is Sunday -- killed nearly 16,000 people and led to a nuclear crisis and huge leaks of radiation. "This year we could see equally devastating results from the disappearance of our computer systems," Woodward said. Radiation from the superfast bombardment of highly charged clouds of solar energy would likely pose little or no health risk. But it could disable computers and other electronics critical to the Olympic Games, which take place in London July 27 through Aug. 12, Woodward said. "As the 2012 Olympics approach, we have a convergence of an event that is the most connected, computer-intensive event ever with a record level of sunspot activity, which typically leads to solar flares," he said. Solar flares are colossal releases of energy rocketed out into space that have been measured to be the equivalent of as much as 160 billion megatons of TNT. The International Olympic Committee and the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games had no immediate comment on the prediction or whether they've taken precautions, such as "hardening" computer systems to withstand the effects of electrical interference. The peak of sun-storm activity, including "solar wind," light isotope plasma and magnetic fields bursting into space -- a phenomenon known as a coronal mass ejection -- is predicted to occur next year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported. The current storm, which arrived Thursday and continued Friday, caused fewer problems than NOAA forecast. "We estimated the speed but we missed the spin on the ball," Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, told Fox News Channel. Some U.S. airlines diverted long-haul flights that pass near the North Pole because passengers and crew members could be exposed to intense bursts of electromagnetic radiation at high latitudes. Airplanes could also suffer from communications issues, Delta Air Lines Inc. spokesman Anthony Black told Fox News. Delta flew alternative routes for at least seven flights between U.S. and Asian cities, he said. "At the moment, the earth's magnetic field is trying to deflect the solar material around the earth, and scientists ... around the world are monitoring the situation to see if our magnetic shield will hold up," Jonathan Eastwood, a research fellow in space and atmospheric physics at London's Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, told The Guardian. There's a good chance, he said, the magnetic field's protection would break down some time Friday, leading to a geomagnetic storm, or a temporary disturbance in Earth's magnetic field. "Such events act as a wake-up call as to how our modern Western lifestyles are utterly dependent on space technology and national power grid infrastructure," Craig Underwood, deputy director of Surrey University's Surrey Space Center and head of the Planetary Environments Group, told The Guardian.

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