“Solar storm” sounds like a contradiction in terms, but they pose a pretty big threat to us thanks to our increased reliance on sensitive electronic devices. Though they don’t physically hurl anything at Earth, the UN recognizes solar storms as concerns “on par with orbital debris and close approaching asteroids.”
…but they’re technically invisible?
Yes. Let’s start from the beginning: What is a solar storm? To put it simply, it’s when the sun (or rather, a “sunspot” on the sun) “burps” out a giant gas cloud of charged particles that’s often associated with magnetic properties known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs). If this cloud hits Earth’s magnetic field, it can seriously disrupt communications – this includes power lines, long distance telephone cables, radar, cell phones, and GPS receivers.
X-class solar flares are the most powerful type of solar storm, and thus pose the greatest threat to our telecommunication grid. Just last week, an X-2 solar flare (which is twice as intense as an X-1 solar flare) erupted; one of six substantial flares we’ve experienced since October 19, 2014.
What Has Happened in the Past
The biggest solar storm on record is known as the Carrington Event, and it happened in 1859-before our reliance on technology. The storm took place during a solar maximum, scientists say, and it was twice as big as any other solar storm in the past 500 years.
Now fast-forward to our technology-driven years.
In 1989, a flare knocked out power for 6 million people throughout Canada and New Jersey by disrupting electric power transmission from the Hydro Quebec generating station.
On Bastille Day in 2000, an X-5 caused satellites to short-circuit and led to radio blackouts. It was followed by a whopping X-28 in 2003, which remains the strongest flare ever recorded. It overwhelmed the spacecraft sensor measuring it, and so the extent of its impact is unknown.
A 2006 flare “disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation signals for about 10 minutes,” according to NASA.
And 2 years ago, we narrowly avoided the most powerful solar storm in 150 years. Earth was one week out of the line of fire.
What Could Happen in the Future
As the sun progresses through the peak of its 11-year activity cycle, more intense solar flares could be directed towards Earth. A powerful flare could reroute airplane flights, cause oil drill heads to go haywire (as they are directed by GPS), damage energy transformers and disrupt power grids.
What about on a smaller scale? Think about all the things you use that require GPS or real time: Phones, road transport, satellite TV, internet, banking…the list goes on. Now imagine all of those things stopped working for people globally. Calamity.
“The total economic impact [of a powerful solar storm] could exceed $2 trillion or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina. Multi-ton transformers damaged by such a storm might take years to repair,” reports NASA.
How to Prepare
Emergency preparedness might be our favorite topic, but it’s the only thing you can do to put your mind at ease. You can’t control solar flares, but you can be ready for them.