NOAA 99-074
Contact: Barbara McGehan


As the sun revs up for Solar Max, a time of intense solar activity, we can look forward to increasingly turbulent space weather. Today the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration introduced the first-ever scales designed to characterize the severity and impact of upcoming solar storms on public safety and services.

"NOAA's new scales are the Richter scales of space weather. For the first time, we can predict the impact of solar storms, and these storms may be a real Y2K problem," said Dr. D. James Baker, under secretary for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. "When Solar Maximum occurs, the sun bursts at its seams with explosive power, and as it churns there is potential for electrical power outages, radio problems, and the disabling of satellites. This can disrupt communications, including broadcast transmissions and pagers," Baker said.

As the period during the 11-year solar cycle when the sun is most active, Solar Maximum brings an increase in the number and intensity of solar storms and their effects. Space storms, radiation showers, aurora borealis, and affects on power grids and Global Positioning System navigation and other systems are all expected during the upcoming Solar Max period, which is expected to last about three years.

Already there is an increase in solar activity as the world approaches another Solar Maximum. As we get farther into Solar Cycle 23, expectations are that the sun will continue to rev up. Each time there is a solar event, NOAA's National Weather Service includes information on the event in its transmission of weather data.

Working like the Richter scale for earthquakes, NOAA's new space weather scales describe the intensity and frequency of three kinds of solar events: geomagnetic storms, solar radiation storms and radio blackouts. "The scales are a giant step forward in informing the public about the severity of these events and their expected consequences," said Dr. Ernie Hildner, director of NOAA's Space Environment Center in Boulder, Colorado. Hildner said that physical measurements on the scales will help the scientific and operations communities consistently identify the intensity of solar events. Solar storms can vary, with some equivalent to a thunderstorm on Earth, while others may be more severe, with intensity similar to a hurricane or tornado.

Satellite expert David Desrocher, a senior engineer at The Aerospace Corporation in Colorado Springs, Colorado, said that, "NOAA's new space weather scales will significantly aid the space industry in anticipating events, understanding effects, and developing more robust satellite designs and mitigation strategies." John Kappenman, a senior engineer at Metatech in Duluth, Minn., explained that space storms can impact the operational reliability of electrical transmission systems world-wide. "The previous solar cycle demonstrated just how seriously the power industry needs to consider the potential impacts of geomagnetic storms," Kappenman said.

One of the strongest impacts occurred during the last solar cycle in 1989, when the entire Province of Quebec went dark because a geomagnetic storm caused power lines to overload.

NOAA's Space Environment Center in Boulder is responsible for issuing warnings, watches and forecasts of the space environment and potential impacts on Earth. The Center continuously monitors the solar environment with a complex array of ground-based observations and satellites operated by NOAA and its national and international partners.

For more information on the Space Environment Center, check out