What are solar storms, and why you should care - WNEM TV 5

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What are solar storms, and why you should care

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Image of the sun showing a CME. (Source: NASA) Image of the sun showing a CME. (Source: NASA)
Image of an aurora from the International Space Station. (Source: NASA) Image of an aurora from the International Space Station. (Source: NASA)
Depiction of a solar flare's effect on Earth's magnetic field. (Source: NASA) Depiction of a solar flare's effect on Earth's magnetic field. (Source: NASA)

Imagine for a moment, a world without electricity. No smartphones, internet, television, or even light past sundown. This could be the result of a perfect solar storm, and events like it have happened in the past. 

What is a solar flare/solar storm?:

A solar storm results when the energy from solar flare hits Earth. Solar flares, also called coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, occur when the sun shoots a mass of charged particles from its surface out into space. These blasts can pack energy levels on the order of several million megatons of TNT to over 1 billion megatons of TNT.

Smaller bursts of radiation are not uncommon to hit the Earth, and are responsible for causing the northern lights, usually visible to some degree several times a year. What is less common though, is a direct hit from a major solar flare, imparting large amounts of electrical energy into Earth's atmosphere. These types of events are not new, occurring throughout history, but what is new is the level of impact such an event could have if it were to directly hit the Earth. 

The Carrington Event:

The Carrington Event is regarded as one of the worst solar storms to strike Earth in recorded history. The storm occurred on September 1st and 2nd of 1859, a time where there was little in the way of electrical infrastructure across the world. In fact, the only electrical system at the time was the telegraph, which suffered the effects of the storm. Sparks flew from the telegraph pylons, operators were shocked or burned, and some offices even caught fire. 

In addition to this, the auroras were so bright, that people in the northeastern United States were able to read newspapers in the dead of night. 

If such an event were to occur today the results would be devastating. In the worst case scenarios, satellites would go offline, power grids would fail, equipment powered on at the time would be damaged beyond repair, airliners would be grounded, and the failure of communications networks would isolate most of the impacted area from the rest of the world. It is estimated that this perfect storm could cause between 1 and 2 trillion dollars in damage, and could take as long as 10 years to fully recover from. 

How are we preparing?:

The good news is we are preparing for such a storm. Michigan Senator Gary Peters has introduced legislation called the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act. This is a bipartisan bill introduced in the hopes of improving communication and organization between government agencies ahead of a major solar storm. 

Organizations such as NASA, NOAA, the National Science Foundation, and US Air Force would be directed to improve forecasting of solar storms, set up redundancy in monitoring solar activity, and develop effective ways to relay forecasts of solar activity and its potential impact to Earth for the organizations who need it to prepare.

With proper forecasting and technology we have the ability to detect CMEs and forecast their arrival. This information, given through effective warnings to the right people, will allow us to shut down critical systems ahead of time, and prepare for the continued functioning of society if some of these systems failed to come back online. 

Regardless of the preparation, a perfect solar storm will result in damage and the loss of some of the things that we take for granted in our modern lives, at least for some period of time. The best we can do is prepare now, that way the impact is minimized, and the time to recovery can be as short as possible. 

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