The impact a solar storm could have

Shutterstock.com/ Jurik Peter

The coronavirus is one catastrophe that many experts had been warning about. It was clear to many that the world was not ready for a large scale pandemic and the result has proven that. The world is an open place and the movement of people allows the spread of disease to take place at a high rate. There are other large catastrophic events that could take place that we are similarly unprepared for. These events are known as low probability high consequence events. We are largely unprepared because they are so unlikely to take place, however as the coronavirus has proved they do take place. Humanity always makes the error of thinking the current state will last forever but things do change. One of the highest consequence events that could happen would be a large solar storm.

A solar storm is a broad term used to describe any change in the sun’s behavior. It can take place as solar flares, coronal mass ejections, solar wind, or solar particle events. These are all different sizes of solar events but those on a larger scale can have a huge impact on our lives. Solar events themselves are not that dangerous for human life. Our atmosphere protects us from the sun and this is why the radiation from these events and the sun in everyday life does not poison us in fatal doses.

However, if a large scale solar event was to take place, our technology would suffer. If a Coronal mass ejection took place for example, which is a massive release of plasma and magnetism from the sun they would have the ability to interfere with aircraft, satellites, and even power grids. In a worst-case scenario situation if a large scale event took place and damaged a high number of power grids we could face blackouts for months or even years. Imagine if all the power grids in the world were damaged, we don’t have replacements on hand and it would be incredibly difficult to build them without electricity on hand, in many ways we would have to start modern society again. While this is extremely unlikely to happen, it has happened before.

In 1859 the strongest solar storm ever recorded took place. It caused a massive aurora in the sky that could be seen as far south as Hawaii. While in 1859 there was not such a huge reliance on technology, it still managed to cause issues. The telegraph was the main form of communication back then and the solar storm caused fires, electrocutions, and equipment to be broken. Since that time we have seen many more solar storm occurrences but they have not been at the same level. 

In more recent years we have seen a solar storm knock out long-distance communication in 1972. In 1989 electrical girds in Canada were disrupted. It caused a blackout for nine hours and melted some power transformers. NASA scientists say that the flare was not even close to the 1859 event. In the 2000s we have seen a number of small events take place too.

In the year 2000, a solar storm took place and caused satellites to malfunction and further blackouts to occur. In 2012 scientists thought we were going to get the big one. Some predicted that it would wipe out a lot of communications technology in the entire world. In the end, it hit Earth’s solar field and missed Earth by about nine days. If it had hit it would have done incredible damage.

These solar flares are part of the Earth’s natural cycle. The questions of consequence to Earth are if the flares will be in our direction and how strong will they be. Our reliance on technology has become so great that if an event like that in 1859 was to occur it would cause serious damage to our way of life.