During this decade, we’ve already experienced drought, heatwaves, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, and killer storms. According to researchers at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), however, the worst may be yet to come…and it’s coming from outer space. U.S. experts are predicting that in the next 10 years, we may bear witness to a rare and dangerous phenomenon known as a “solar superstorm.”

This monster blast of geomagnetic particles from the sun would have instant and terrible impacts on our environment, not the least of which would be the destruction of high-voltage transformers that form the backbone of the U.S. electric grid. Right now, there are over 2,000 of these transformers in operation, but scientists say that even if the solar superstorm knocked out a couple hundred of them, it could spell big trouble for the grid.

According to Reuters, “some U.S. experts estimate as much as a 7 percent chance of a superstorm in the next decade, which seems a slight risk, but the effects would be so wide-ranging – akin to a major meteorite strike – that it has drawn official concern.”

Like a meteorite hitting the earth, the probability that a solar storm of this magnitude would occur is very low, but the potential for long-term impact is high. The last time a solar superstorm of this magnitude was observed by humans, it was 1859, and there was very little electricity to knock out. This time, widespread power blackouts would create health hazards, especially in areas where the temperature can be quite high. Keeping food fresh, medical equipment functioning, and emergency services available would be difficult to say the least.

Right now, the NAS estimates that about 365 high-voltage transformers in the continental United States are at risk of failure or permanent damage in the event of a solar superstorm. This estimate is hotly disputed by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, or NERC, which oversees North America’s power grid. The NERC says a solar superstorm is more likely to result in voltage collapse, which would know out power temporarily, but not destroy the transformers.

Photo Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr