Scientists predict severe space weather in the run up to a solar energy peak in 2012. Max Hibling explains the risk outlook

Planet earth faces a new threat as severe space storms are predicted to hit us in the next few years.

During an 11-year solar cycle, the sun reaches an energy peak, whereby it produces more powerful solar flares, which affect the magnetic fields surrounding our planet.

The next peak is due to hit between 2012-2015 and it is expected to be the most violent ever recorded, said Lloyd's of London in new research.

Space storms have had a limited impact on Earth in the past. Today, however, our overreliance on technology means that the effect of a solar storm could be much worse.

A space storm similar to the massive "Carrington Event" of 1859 could interfere with aviation and power supplies, especially in polar regions.

Aircraft travelling over the Arctic or oceans rely upon high frequency radio waves to remain in contact with control centres. Space weather creates an atmospheric layer, which can change the frequency of these waves, disrupting communications. When this happens the frequencies must be altered, or in the case of blackouts, where the waves are completely absorbed, alternative methods of communication, such as via satellite have to be used.

Flights over polar regions are often diverted in order to avoid these interferences, as communication satellites are not available from such high latitudes.

But solar bursts can also cause disruptions with satellite navigation, another factor hampering aviation. Furthermore space weather can cause increased radiation exposure to air crew and frequent flyers, creating health issues (and potential liabilities).

These can be averted by flying at lower altitudes or diverting flights around the poles, though these solutions come at a high cost to the airlines, as they require thousands of gallons of extra fuel.

Space storms can also seriously affect power grids, occasionally causing permanent damage or, as happened in Quebec in March 1989, complete shutdowns lasting hours—the total costs associated with the Quebec event was eventually calculated to be over $2bn.

As businesses become more interconnected, the effects of space weather damage in one sector could have serious consequences in other areas; for example the shutdown of a power grid could cause great issues for transport, medicine, sanitation and finance, among other things. This is a particular risk for urban areas.

However, the effects of space storms can be reduced by building assets and systems that can operate during bad space weather, though this is, naturally, an expensive process. This method is used frequently in the space industry, where space weather is a common issue.

Alternate procedures, such as plane diversions or reconfiguring power grids, can be set up temporarily during the affected periods to reduce the impact of space storms. This method relies on access to space weather forecasts, which cannot be produced accurately much more than an hour in advance.

Access to this information is expected to improve in the near future. It is also important to fix the problems raised by space storms as quickly as possible, and to set up precautions against recurrences by assessing what went wrong.

It is important to set up precautions against space storms, particularly for 2012, which promises to be a very disruptive year. Robust assets are a good way to minimise costs, said Lloyd’s in its report, and information to forecast space weather should be accessible to allow alternative operations to be put in place over the duration of severe storm weather.