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  • Writer's pictureSven Piper

Why are Solar Storms so dangerous?

Updated: 7 days ago

Solar Storm hitting Earth created with Dall-E
Solar Storm hitting Earth created with Dall-E

Without the Sun, there would be no life on Earth. However, the Sun can also become dangerous, particularly now as it is very active. A severe solar storm could potentially set our technological advancements back centuries to a time without electric power.

Over the last two days, the Earth has been hit by several coronal mass ejections (CME) causing a huge geomagnetic storm,  a major disturbance of Earth's magnetosphere, the strongest in 20 years. Therefore, the U.S. government has issued its first severe geomagnetic storm watch in nearly two decades. Elon Musk announced on Twitter: 'The Starlink satellites are under a lot of pressure, but holding up so far.'

But what is a solar storm?

A solar storm is caused by an explosion on the surface of the Sun, called a flare. Flares occur when magnetic field lines that have built up on the surface of the Sun suddenly collapse, releasing enormous amounts of energy. We typically see a solar flare by the photons (or light) it radiates at every wavelength of the spectrum. This energy is emitted in the form of electromagnetic radiation, energetic particles, and plasma that travel at high speeds through space.

Another mechanism that can lead to a solar storm is a coronal mass ejection (CMEs). A CME is a giant cloud of plasma and charged particles containing a billion tons of matter. It is ejected from the surface of the Sun and travels at high speed through space.

When the plasma and particle clouds ejected by a solar flare or coronal mass ejection (CME) interact with the Earth's magnetic field, they can cause a geomagnetic storm. This can lead to disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field, which can impact technology and infrastructure, including satellite communications, power grids, and navigation systems.

So, in summary, solar storms are caused by the release of energy and matter from the Sun, which can then hit the Earth's atmosphere.

The danger depends on the cycle of the Sun. A solar maximum is a period of increased activity on the surface of the Sun, which manifests itself in increased sunspot numbers, flares, and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Activity on the solar surface typically increases slowly, reaching its maximum around mid-cycle before gradually decreasing again. A solar maximum usually lasts about 11 years. We are currently in solar cycle 25, which is expected to peak in 2024/2025 and last until about 2030.

However, the duration of a solar maximum can vary. Some cycles may be shorter or longer and vary in intensity. Following 1755, the previous solar cycle, the 24 cycle, began in December 2008 and was minimal until 2010, peaking in April 2014 and lasting until December 2019.

Against most solar storms, the Earth's magnetic field is an effective shield. It directs charged particles around the Earth, protecting people and technological infrastructure from the harmful radiation and effects of solar storms.

But unfortunately, this can also become overloaded during a strong solar storm. In this case, the Earth's magnetic field can temporarily collapse and take several days to restore, resulting in increased radiation on the Earth's surface. That's why scientists monitor activity on the Sun's surface to better understand how solar activity changes over time and how that may affect our lives and technology.

But there are also other reasons why solar storms should be considered potentially dangerous to humans:

  • Power outages: A strong solar storm can generate electromagnetic pulses that can disrupt or damage power grids. This can cause regional or even nationwide power outages for several days.

  • Satellite Communications: Solar storms can disrupt or damage GPS systems and satellite communications. This can impact air travel, shipping, telecommunications, and other critical infrastructure.

  • Health Impacts: Solar storms can also release dangerous radiation, increasing the risk of cancer.

But all this is nothing compared to what happened in the 19th century.

The Carrington Event

The Carrington Event was a powerful geomagnetic storm that occurred on September 1–2, 1859. It was named after the British astronomer Richard Carrington (1826-1875), who observed and recorded the event.

The Carrington Event was most likely caused by a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) from the Sun.

When the CME from the Carrington Event reached Earth, it caused a severe geomagnetic storm. The storm was so intense that it caused auroras to be visible in the sky as far south as the Caribbean and caused telegraph systems around the world to fail. Some telegraph operators even reported receiving shocks from their equipment, and some could continue to send and receive messages despite having disconnected their power supplies. Furthermore, some telegraph pylons threw sparks and caused fires.

If a similar event were to occur today, it could have significant impacts on our technology-dependent society. It could even bring our technological civilization to a halt.

Recent solar storm incidents

One of the most significant recent solar storms was in March 1989, when a powerful geomagnetic storm caused a widespread blackout in the Canadian province of Quebec, leaving millions of people without power for several hours. The storm was caused by a CME from the Sun that collided with Earth's magnetic field.

In July 2012, another CME narrowly missed Earth, passing through the orbit where Earth would have been just a week earlier. Fortunately, we got away with it once again. Had it hit Earth, it could have caused significant disruption to power grids and satellite communications.

While we haven't experienced a Carrington-class event in modern times, scientists and engineers continue to monitor solar activity and prepare for the possibility of a severe solar storm. They work to develop ways to protect technology and infrastructure, such as shielding power grids and satellite systems from the effects of geomagnetic storms.


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