Solar storms are back, threatening life as we know it on Earth

Millions of tons of very hot gas blasted off the sun's surface a few days ago and traveled 90 million kilometers in our direction.

On the scale of space weather, the explosion, known as a coronal mass ejection, wasn't all that strong, but when it collided with the Earth's magnetic field, it caused the greatest geomagnetic storm in years. This time there wasn't much interruption, and it's doubtful many people even noticed it, but it served as a reminder that the sun had awakened after a protracted nap.

The geomagnetic waves produced by solar storms may damage electrical systems, interfere with radio communications, expose airplane crews to harmful radiation levels, and jolt important satellites out of alignment while being invisible and safe to anybody on the Earth's surface. The sun started a new 11-year cycle last year, and as it approaches its peak in 2025, the possibility of powerful space weather wreaking havoc on humanity looms. Since the last major storms hit 17 years ago, the world has become increasingly dependent on technology. According to a recent research, the hardening of the system would help the American electricity sector by $27 billion.

Caitlin Durkovich, senior director of resilience and response in the National Security Council and special assistant to President Joe Biden, said in a speech at a solar-weather conference last month, "It is still remarkable to me the number of people, companies, who think space weather is Hollywood fiction."

The threat exists in reality. In 2017, a solar storm rendered ham radios staticky as Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, tore through the Caribbean. Solar storms in 2015 brought down GPS systems in the Northeastern United States, raising concerns as self-driving cars become a reality. During solar storms, airline pilots are more likely to get cataracts. Miscarriages are more common among female crew members.

According to Hydro-Quebec's website, a solar storm over Quebec in March 1989 resulted in a nine-hour power outage that affected the whole province. According to a 2017 research published in the journal of the American Geophysical Union, blackouts brought on by extreme space weather might affect up to 66% of the country's population, with possible daily economic losses of $41.5 billion.

The administration of President Barack Obama devised a plan to start increasing awareness of the threats posed by powerful solar storms in order to prevent such a tragedy. The ProSwift legislation, which aims to advance technology to better predicting and measurement of space weather occurrences, was signed into law by President Donald Trump last year.

Scientists disagree on the extent to which sensitive components of the planet's infrastructure can be protected from the consequences of solar storms. Though measures like switching to non-magnetic steel for transformer construction and adding additional surge protectors to the grid might increase resistance, improved forecasting may ultimately be the greatest catastrophe prevention measure.

That would go a long way toward assisting utilities with their planning for shortages and ensuring that they have backup plans in place in case they lose power. A new model created by the University of Michigan will be live in a few weeks to enhance predicting for the Earth.

In order to prepare for a significant space weather event, Mark Prouse, deputy director of the agency for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, a ministerial agency, revealed that National Grid in the U.K. is increasing its stock of spare transformers and holding frequent drills.

The United States and the United Kingdom have constructed space weather forecasting facilities in the last 15 years that provide daily outlooks on what the sun may be up to for airlines, power grids, satellite owners, and anybody else at risk from solar flares. Even while watchers on Earth may witness violent storms erupt on the sun, they are unable to assess the threat's genuine nature or its exact strength until the explosion travels 1 million miles away from the earth. The remaining time till it impacts Earth is only 60 to 90 minutes at that point.

The director of the United States Space Weather Prediction Center, William Murtagh, stated that "our ability to understand and predict the solar cycle is still very limited."

Similar precautions could be taken ahead of a solar storm, according to Mark Olson, the reliability assessment manager for the North America Electric Reliability Corp., a nonprofit accountable to the U.S. and Canadian governments, just as utilities can prepare for a severe thunderstorm by staging repair workers nearby.

Voltage instability "has the potential to occur over very large areas," Olson added. "Like in terrestrial weather events, situational awareness is the key here."

Solar storms are caused by the sun's magnetic field changing polarity on an 11-year cycle. As a result of this process, the magnetic forces at work on the sun get entangled and have the potential to pierce through the surface, releasing the sun's plasma into space and perhaps causing storms on Earth.

The 1859 Carrington Event, which caused telegraph wires to electrify and set offices on fire in North America and Europe, was the outcome of the strongest geomagnetic storm ever seen. Millions, if not billions of people would undoubtedly lose electricity if a storm of that size were to strike today.

I raised an eyebrow when I initially started down this route and received a briefing on space weather, said Prouse. "It is considerably more popular now, and part of the mystery has disappeared. Now you may mention it as a danger without getting laughed at.