Solar power is prized as a renewable energy source to supply today’s constantly expanding technological industry. But what if the sun has its own power surge and directs excessive amounts of energy at the earth? This happens periodically when solar storms strike, and the potential effects on technology and day-to-day life are serious. So what exactly is a solar storm? When can we expect the next one, what have storms done in the past, how will they affect technology in today’s world, and is there anything we can do?
What is a solar storm?
Planet earth revolves around the familiar yet mysterious ball of gas that we call the sun. It generates enough energy in one minute to meet the earth’s needs for a whole year. It is commonly known to release various types of radiation, some of which cause sunburn and skin cancer, and others which are used by plants in the process of photosynthesis. The full force of the sun may not be understood, but it is capable of ejecting particles and radiation in explosions that can shoot through the universe at millions of miles an hour. These more severe eruptions are known as solar storms.
How often are storms likely to occur?
Minor solar storms cycle and peak every eleven years, but superstorms are believed to happen around 150 years apart, with the last serious one recorded in 1859. Scientists are being encouraged to keep an eye on the situation, as statistically the next big storm is already slightly overdue.
The problem is that predicting solar storms is a difficult science, with only a window of approximately thirty minutes between the first signs and the event.
The sun has discharged highly energised materials into space at various times in the last century. The storm of 1921 saw communication halted and fires started in America. Electrical transformers were hit in Canada in 1989, causing blackouts in less than two minutes, some of which continued for nine hours. Sweden was affected in 2003 by disrupted power, satellites, and airline navigation systems. Atmospheric radiation levels are generally affected during storms, with incidents occurring in 1956 and 1972.
What effect will solar storms have on technology?
The magnetosphere is the earth’s natural shield. It prevents a large proportion of solar radiation from damaging our planet, its population and its systems. Some of this energy can be seen far off in the form of the Northern and Southern Lights.
However, a serious geomagnetic storm could break through the earth’s barrier, creating power surges, causing blackouts and stopping the Internet in its tracks. Radiation levels would rise, satellites and information transfer would be interrupted, and some communication and navigation systems might fail, putting the aviation industry at risk. The 4G mobile phone network is dependent on GPS satellites, and other phone networks may also be affected.
The fact that the world relies so heavily on mobile technology and computer systems for communication, work, local and international business and transport systems means that a general disruption to electricity and power structures would have a significant effect on daily life as we experience it in the modern, technology-driven world.
What can we do?
While scientists monitor the sun’s activity in preparation for the inevitable, the earth’s atmosphere continues to helpfully deflect some of the sun’s particle emissions. If warnings came through in enough time, devices could be turned off, transformers and power stations could utilise capacitors to diminish the effects of power surges, and some space satellites could be shielded in advance.
However, whenever the big storm hits, it is expected to be sudden. It will be a case of managing the fallout afterwards and hopefully reconnecting power and resuming usual technological services as soon as possible.
For the average person who is reliant on technology – and aren’t we all? – maybe we should try and remember what life was like without smartphones, tablets and computers. If a superstorm hits, however, we will simply have to survive without them for a while. Perhaps then we will respect the sun’s amazing power and not take our technology-rich lifestyles for granted.