The warnings about a solar flare of a particular strength and type have been around for a long time. But now, much of the world's economic structure is built upon fragile and relatively unprotected electronic and electrical systems. The odds of a major flare that would knock out power grids, satellite based communications and control systems and anything to do with the web are higher simply because the equivalent of a great city has been built on the side of a very active volcano.
According to the financial times, a major flare or electromagnetic storm that is capable of knocking out power grids, electronics and satellite based systems could cost over $2000 billion in lost satellite functionality and permanent damage, power grid failures and the resulting loss of functionality or damage to untold amounts of equipment and communications capability.
The term that is used by the scientists who help to set national policies about such solar storms is "space weather". The dire warnings come from discussions held by the American Association for the Advancement of Scientists at the organization's annual meeting. A statement by one of the participants, UK Chief Scientist Sir John Beddington, pointed out that the sun is coming out of a period of relative inactivity. At the same time, there are many more systems that are vulnerable to damage since the last period of great solar activity.
The Carrington event describes a solar storm so powerful that it knocked out the world's telegraph infrastructure in 1859. But the cautions are to not "overhype" the dangers and potentials of a solar storm while giving enough of a warning to move governments to start planning and budgeting for detection and warning systems.
As a result, the time for predicting and preparing is now, according to US National Oceanic and Atmospheric director, Jane Lubchenco. Since it can take years to develop plans and to set budgets for carrying out those plans, the dire and official warnings serve as the best way to gain some political, corporate and governmental momentum in directing time and funds toward the preparation.
As an example of the need for more attention to increasing solar activity, according to The Space Review, the UK has not even added solar flares to its national risk register, which the UK uses to plan for emergencies. Sweden, on the other hand, is more vulnerable to solar flares because of its extreme northern location and has put more priority on preparing for the power of such storms.
A solar flare is simply defined as a large explosion of the Sun. Flares are classified as A, B, C, M, or X. The flares produce a burst of radiation that can go across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. The spectrum includes gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet, visible, infrared, and radio waves. Electrons, protons and heavy nuclei are heated up and sent into the solar atmosphere and beyond. Depending on the strength of the flare, these waves are the source of the damage.
X class flares are the "biggest" and can cause the most serious global blackouts and damage. M class flares are medium sized, and C class flares are relatively small.
Up to now, solar flares have been all about gas, heat, magnetism and X-rays. But a relatively new type of storm, Proton storms, has caused concern and changed the way that scientists are looking at solar flares, according to NASA Science News.