The Devastating Effects of Solar Storms

Henry Gerecke, Contributor

Another apocalyptic event is on its way: a massive solar storm, which could cause global blackouts and crippling damage to the electrical grids. This could occur at any time, from within the decade, to centuries from now. The Sun constantly releases charged plasma particles, which is responsible for phenomena such as auroras. Normally, this plasma is held in sunspots, but very rarely the spots are destroyed, and all the plasma is released in an event known as a solar storm.  Even more rarely, this release of plasma will hit the Earth. When it does, the Northern Lights may look extra bright and vibrant, but shortly after that, power grids will blackout.

Earth has experienced solar storms like these for billions of years, but this will be the first time our modern electrical grid will be hit by one of this magnitude.  Small storms have been known to cause minor blackouts and damage to solar panels. In 1972, a storm set off the magnetic triggers on U.S. sea mines off the coast of Vietnam, causing about 25 explosions off the coast. The largest recorded storm was in 1859, and it is known as the Carrington Event. At the time, there was very little electrical infrastructure. The telegraph lines ignited fires, and its operators experienced electrical shocks. With the massively increased dependence on electricity and development of larger electrical grids, a storm of this magnitude could cause trillions of dollars of damage. Blackouts could last for years in some areas of the U.S. before they can be repaired.

Storms this large happen infrequently, but we are due for another one relatively soon. Sun spots collapse anywhere from 3 times a day to once every 5 days. When a large one lines up with Earth, we will be in trouble. Medium sized storms hit earth every 20 to 40 years, and tend to cause temporary blackouts, satellite damage, and radio silence. Currently, there are several missions dedicated to forecasting space weather. One satellite, the Parker Solar Probe, is on a mission to help develop the ability to predict solar events. With this, we could disconnect electronics and hopefully minimize the damage caused by these storms.