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Solar flares now classified as 'major threat' to hi tech UK

The UK Cabinet Office says solar flares are one of the top threats to normal life, rating them alongside the likes of terrorism and floods.

The UK Cabinet Office has highlighted solar flares as one of the largest threats to normal life, rating them alongside the likes of terrorism, floods and flu pandemics.

Solar flares -- large bursts of radiation from the sun, if you didn't already know -- have the potential to bombard the Earth with charge particles that can disrupt technology, knocking out communications systems, power grids and even interfere with airplanes in flight.

The sun is entering its 'solar max', the most active period in its 10-year cycle, and this increases the chances of solar storms and the release of particles. That, coupled with the UK's dependence on advanced tech, has led Whitehall to deem solar flares one of the most severe threats to our current lifestyle.

The Met Office's Mark Gibbs, speaking to The Observer, said that a solar storm could cause the main power grid to fail and affect plane components, particularly in aircraft flying over the north pole, the part of the planet most susceptible to solar radiation. He did say that the risk of a major power catastrophe here in the UK was less severe than in the US (due to engineering, geology and other factors), but still identified it as a potential threat to daily life. "Society can't function without power," he said.

It gets scarier. Professor Andrew Coates from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory told The Observer that if the worst happens -- a major solar storm that occurs once every few hundred years -- any preparations made by the government would likely be useless: "That sort of event would have a huge effect on technology that we rely on and go beyond the types of contingency there are in the system." Gulp.

So while a 'normal' solar storm may do nothing more than affect your mobile phone's signal for a while, a bad one could bring down society and usher in a Hunger Games-style dark future in which attractive youths do gladiatorial battle for the amusement of a corrupt, rich ruling class. Better cover your MacBook in tinfoil, just in case.