- The Sun ejects charged particles through the solar wind, and at times, this activity can ramp up to create a solar storm.
- Charged particles from the Sun can disrupt anything that uses electricity and can interfere with communications systems.
- Several solar storms have caused damage and disruptions in the past and we know that more solar storms are coming.
- Warning systems can tell us when a solar storm is likely to arrive, but it's important to prepare systems and ourselves for space weather events.
Imagine a world without internet or cell phones. Actually, that was not too long ago. But it could happen again due to solar storms.
The Sun continually ejects charged particles, including through solar flares, in a stream which is termed the solar wind. The Earth’s magnetic field blocks most of these particles, so they divert to and cascade toward our planet at the south and north magnetic poles. There, they create the magical beauty of auroras.
The solar wind varies in strength. At times, its activity ramps up into a solar storm or geomagnetic storm which disturbs the Earth’s magnetic field and upper atmosphere.
Anything depending on electricity in these regions, such as satellites, can experience problems. As more particles break through our planet’s protecting fields, the same happens on the ground.
Past Solar Storms
The charged particles can disrupt equipment using electricity and interfere with communications systems. Instances go back to the dawn of applying electricity through the telegraph which permitted rapid communication across long distances.
The first two days of September 1859 witnessed the Sun’s largest space weather event that we have yet recorded directly. It was the Carrington Event, named for Richard Carrington, an amateur astronomer who connected observed activity on the Sun with Earthly impacts. This solar storm brought many telegraph communications to a standstill, just 15 years after the first telegraph message had been sent.
On 24 March 1940, northeastern USA and southern Ontario suffered communications and power outages from space weather. Several mass ejections of particles from the Sun in March 1989 produced gorgeous auroras culminating on the 13th with a major Québec blackout.
Similar events in October-November 2003 knocked out one satellite, forced several others to shut down, and interrupted communications and electricity around the world. Due to high radiation levels, several airline flights around the high latitudes were rerouted.
A terrifying close call occurred on 23 July 2012. A solar storm close to the size of the Carrington Event sliced across the Earth’s orbit one week after our planet had passed that point. A direct strike would have likely taken down most of the world’s information and communication systems, immediately causing trillions of dollars of damage. We would have needed years to restore full operations.
Consider most of a country’s electricity transformers going offline. It would be a long, arduous process of repairing or replacing them, along with any damaged cables, even as supply chains and transportation are disrupted. Meanwhile, damaged satellites which cannot be restarted and maintained from Earth would need a space mission for repairs or would need to be replaced.
Fortunately, we have warning systems monitoring the Sun’s activity and helping us to be ready for large storms. The Sun has an 11- to 12-year cycle, helping us to know the approximate timeframe during which big storms might arrive, although they could happen at any time. If a major solar storm is brewing, then we might be told hours or days in advance followed by minutes or hours of warning that one is definitely on its way.
How We Can Prepare for Solar Storms
Unfortunately, proper prevention and preparation must be done a long time before a warning is issued. For electricity-dependent systems, it is best to incorporate space weather possibilities during their design.
They can be shielded from particles to some extent while the entire system, whether a water treatment plant or a satellite, can be built to be shut down and restarted at short notice. Since solar storms do not typically last more than several hours, planning for systems’ temporary outage is essential, although high-activity periods for the solar wind might last for several days.
Vital systems which must have power, such as medical equipment keeping patients alive, require proper shielding and back-ups. With GPS, the internet, and most communications down, planes, ships, and others could have trouble navigating and reaching safety. Planes suddenly dropping out of the sky is a far less likely scenario.
Not all equipment, especially smaller devices such as phones and laptops, will necessarily fry, although this possibility remains. Glitches in and damage to anything using electricity would be expected, especially from power surges if the device is plugged in. In any case, without electricity, they will function only as long as their batteries.
Consequently, at an individual level, we must enact the usual preparedness for a blackout. This means having enough emergency supplies to be on our own for up to two weeks, which is standard disaster preparedness. Examples are drinking water, non-perishable food, first aid supplies, medicines, and essential hygiene products. This assumes that we can afford these stockpiles.
Many people who can also purchase and maintain their own emergency generator and fuel supply. After all, plenty of weather from our own planet can knock out power and impede repairs and supplies. Care is needed to avoid harm from dangerous generator by-products such as carbon monoxide.
With risk reduction, prevention, damage mitigation, preparedness, readiness, and warning, few disasters should happen.
We know these solar storms are coming. We have evidence of events larger than Carrington’s from around 2,700, 1,250, and 1,030 years ago. We just await the next one.
As with all disasters, the more we get ready and plan now, the fewer the impacts and the quicker and cheaper we recover. They are not “black swans” because we know they must happen.
Beware the solar flare, yes. Beware our choice not to prepare.
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Giegengack, R. 2015. The Carrington Coronal Mass Ejection of 1859. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 159, no. 4, pp. 421-433.
Park, J., J. Southon, S. Fahrni, P.P. Creasman, and R. Mewaldt. 2017. Relationship between solar activity and Δ14C peaks in AD 775, AD 994, and 660 BC. Radiocarbon, vol. 59, no. 4, pp. 1147-1156.