- Most solar storms are rather harmless, but the sun can occasionally produce extremely intense storms.
- These are powerful enough to cause massive power outages and bring satellites down.
- According to scientists, we are more likely than usual to be hit by a super-strong storm in the future years.
The sun is constantly fizzing and exploding, sending solar energy toward the Earth. But there are occasions when it is more serious.
On a typical day, its immense solar radiation is deflected without inflicting significant damage. But every now and again, the sun unleashes a storm powerful enough to tear open the Earth’s magnetic fields.
If a storm of this magnitude hit tomorrow, it would produce technological pandemonium that may “cripple economies and endanger the safety and livelihoods of people worldwide,” according to NASA.
Fortunately, these storms are extremely infrequent. However, our sun is becoming restless as it approaches a 20-year peak in activity, increasing the likelihood that one will collide with Earth in the coming years, according to astronomers.
And we’ve never been more exposed.
In the future years, a major storm is increasingly likely.
Solar flares, coronal holes, and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) – massive explosions on the sun — can all release high-speed particles that disrupt the Earth’s magnetic fields.
If these collide with the Earth violently enough, they can pull down the Earth’s ionization layer, which protects us from the worst of space weather. This may allow more charged particles to pass through.
“We’re talking about a one-in-a-hundred-year event,” said Mathew Owens, a space physics lecturer at the University of Reading.
This type of powerful geomagnetic storm might occur at any time. However, it becomes more likely during a peak in solar activity, which occurs around every 11 years when the sun’s magnetic field lines get more tangled and knotted.
This stress increases the likelihood of the sun producing more sunspots, CMEs, solar flares, and coronal holes. All of this increases the likelihood of a once-in-a-century event occurring.
“The much stronger events don’t happen every cycle,” University College London associate professor of space and climate physics Daniel Verscharen told Insider.
“However, it’s more likely to get some of those events that cause power outages here on Earth during a maximum of a strong cycle like the one that’s coming,” he said.
We have never been more exposed to a major storm
The most intense geomagnetic storms on record predate the internet and the large satellite fleets we see today. The more we rely on infrastructure, the more vulnerable we are to its failure.
The 1859 Carrington Event is largely regarded as the greatest violent solar storm ever observed. However, because there was so little infrastructure to destroy, the damage was minimal.
Even so, it was dramatic: telegraph operators received electric shocks from their equipment, and fires broke out at telegraph stations as storm currents coursed through the cables.
Another noteworthy storm occurred in 1989. Though less violent, this storm was more disruptive – by that point, we’d begun to rely more on electrical grids and worldwide communications.
The burst of power triggered a 12-hour power outage in Quebec, knocking out short-wave radio. Canadians were concerned that the Soviet Union was jamming radio communications entering Russia, which may have been dangerous during the Cold War.
Fortunately, the situation did not worsen. However, it is possible that we have been lulled into a false feeling of security. Our reliance on communications, satellites, power grids, and other critical infrastructure has grown tremendously during the 1990s.
According to NASA, if such a storm occurs today, the world may anticipate severe power outages, satellites to plummet out of orbit, and critical communication networks to be disrupted.
Why are scientists concerned about the next solar maximum?
The sun’s activity is increasing right now, and scientists are especially concerned about the current solar cycle.
This cycle is predicted to be more moderate than the previous one, although it is already more active. This suggests that the sun may become more active than it has been in the last two decades.
According to Verscharen, the space professor, another aspect is that the sun’s magnetic fields are likewise pointing southwards. According to him, this means that the charged particles emitted by the sun are more likely to contain a magnetic charge that is antithetical to the Earth’s magnetic field.
This may offer the particles a better chance of breaching the Earth’s defenses.
It is still feasible that a once-in-a-century storm will skip this solar cycle. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be in danger.
“With each solar cycle, we become more technologically dependent.” “What an average cycle would’ve caused in terms of space weather impacts 20 years ago is a lot less than what an average cycle might cause now,” said Owens, the other professor.
According to both experts, a storm does not have to be Carrington-level to have widespread effects.
Already, the present solar cycle is doing havoc. Strong solar flares have created radio blackouts, which can impede long-haul flights over the poles.
All of these effects, according to Verscharen, can have “significant financial consequences.”