Solar storms: Just how dangerous are they?

Solar flares and a solar prominence are seen as the moon covers the sun during a total solar eclipse seen from Cleveland on Monday, April 8, 2024. (AP)
Solar flares and a solar prominence are seen as the moon covers the sun during a total solar eclipse seen from Cleveland on Monday, April 8, 2024. (AP)

Summary

  • While the Western world saw some pretty skies, they were casued by a solar flare that could disrupt life as we know it

A violent solar flare has reminded us just what changes in the sun’s surface conditions can do to us. Strong solar storms can bring down power infrastructure, communications and disrupt navigation—facets through which the modern world functions. Mint explains:

What are solar flares and do they matter?

Most solar flares are violent storms of plasma material on the sun’s surface, creating a strong gust of charged particles, or solar ‘wind’, through space. This wind carries with itself a magnetic field. But our planet has its own magnetic field too—Earth’s magnetosphere is the outermost layer of our atmosphere. While this field protects us from most solar flares, very strong ones overwhelm our magnetic field, causing charged particles from the sun to enter our lower atmosphere. In turn, this creates Aurora borealis—the magical northern lights—but it can also bring down any electronic or electrical system.

How do satellites and power grids get hit?

Think of a solar flare hitting a satellite as a small bolt of lightning hitting a gadget. If this happens, an overflow of electricity will damage most circuits and wiring because they carry more charge than what our systems are designed for. While satellites and power grids have protections against regular solar wind, flares can be of unpredictable magnitude, and destroy such equipment. Solar flares also heat up our atmosphere due to very high concentration of charged particles, which too hits satellites on their trajectories. Two years ago, Elon Musk lost nearly 50 satellites just after launching, because of this.

Is this the biggest solar storm ever?

The most violent was the ‘Carrington Event’ of 1859, when global telegraph infrastructure blacked out. The next worst was the ‘Halloween Storm’ of 2003, which brought down power infrastructure in South Africa and Sweden. Last week’s storm is bad enough to be rated ‘G5’ (strongest) in official classification—making it one of the worst in history.

Could these get even worse in the future?

Solar storms can get far worse as the sun’s surface goes through changes as it ages. More important is our dependence on satellites, radio waves, lasers and electricity. Starlink, for instance, uses lasers to relay signals along its satellite constellation, and then beam down connectivity to earth. Most satellites talk to the ground through radio waves. Solar flares can interrupt high frequency radio waves—and completely halt global communications. This means no internet, or phone calls. Power grids can need full overhauls.

How then can we defend ourselves?

We can build more global solar observatories, which can predict solar storms. Prior information can allow us to shut down ground stations and reorient satellites. Or we can try and erect shields to protect satellites. The use of AI in studying the sun’s behaviour can further improve our defence. However, as long as we use the current communication systems—radio waves, laser optics and power cables—there is no known complete defence against a potential global blackout, which could lead to billions in losses.

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