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

A few days ago, the sun's surface released millions of tons of extremely hot gas, which raced 90 million miles towards the direction of Earth.

Although the explosion, known as a coronal mass ejection, was not very strong in terms of space weather, it caused the biggest geomagnetic storm in years when it struck the Earth's magnetic field. This time, there was probably less of a disturbance—few people even realized it occurred—but it was a reminder that the sun had risen from its lengthy sleep.

The geomagnetic waves produced by solar storms are invisible and safe for people on Earth's surface, but they have the capacity to destroy electrical systems, interfere with radio communications, expose airplane crews to lethal radiation levels, and upset vital satellites. The sun started a new 11-year cycle last year, and as it approaches its maximum in 2025, there is a growing risk that severe space weather may wreak havoc on humanity and bring instability to a society that has grown more dependent on technology than it was during the previous major storm 17 years ago. According to a recent analysis, the US power sector may gain $27 billion through protecting the system.

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

There is real risk involved. In 2017, when Category 5 Hurricane Irma tore through the Caribbean, a solar storm turned ham radios to static. A specific worry as self-driving cars become a reality is that in 2015, solar storms in the Northeast of the United States brought down global positioning systems. During solar storms, airline pilots are more likely to have cataracts. Miscarriages are more common among female crew members.

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

President Barack Obama's administration outlined a plan to start educating people about the risks posed by huge solar storms and to evaluate the hazards they represent in order to avert such a disaster. The ProSwift bill, which aims to advance technology to better forecasting and measurement of space weather occurrences, was signed into law by President Donald Trump last year.

How much can be done to protect the planet's infrastructure against solar storm damage is a topic of discussion among scientists. Increasing the number of surge protectors in the grid and utilizing non-magnetic steel in transformers are two ways to increase resistance, although improved forecasting may ultimately be the strongest line of defense against disaster.

In order to assist utilities plan for shortages and ensure that there are ways to backup their systems in the event that power is lost, that would be very beneficial. A new model from the University of Michigan will be available online in a few weeks to aid with predicting on Earth.

Mark Prouse, deputy director of the federal Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, stated that National Grid in the United Kingdom is increasing its inventory of spare transformers and holding frequent drills in preparation for a significant space weather event.

The United States and the United Kingdom have constructed space weather forecasting centers in the last fifteen years, providing airlines, power grids, satellite owners, and anybody else at risk from solar flares with daily outlooks on potential solar activity. While viewers on Earth can witness explosive storms erupt on the sun, they are unable to determine the precise nature of the threat or its real potency until the blast reaches a group of satellites located one million miles from Earth. It will only be 60 to 90 minutes left at that moment until it impacts Earth.

William Murtagh, director of the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center, stated, "Our ability to understand and predict the solar cycle is still exceptionally limited."

Similar measures could be taken ahead of a solar storm, advises Mark Olson, the reliability assessment manager for the nonprofit North America Electric Reliability Corp., which is accountable to the governments of the United States and Canada. Utilities can prepare for a severe thunderstorm by arranging repair workers nearby.

Voltage instability "has the potential to occur over very large areas," Olson stated. "As with terrestrial weather events, situational awareness is crucial in this situation."

The 11-year cycle that modifies the polarity of the sun's magnetic field is the source of solar storms. During the process, the magnetic forces at work on the sun become tangled and have the ability to smash through the surface, launching the sun's plasma into space and perhaps causing storms on Earth.

The Carrington Event of 1859, caused by the strongest geomagnetic storm ever recorded, caused telegraph connections to electrify, electrocuting operators and igniting offices across Europe and North America. Millions, if not billions, of people would probably lose electricity if a storm of that size struck today.

"I raised an eyebrow when I was briefed on space weather when I first started on this road," Prouse remarked. "Some of the mystery has disappeared, and it is now far more popular. Now you may bring it up as a danger without fear of ridicule."