Solar Flares: The Threat We’re Not Prepared For (And How Worried Should You Be?)

16th Aug 2022
Solar Flares: The Threat We’re Not Prepared For (And How Worried Should You Be?)

How much can a solar flare really affect us on earth, ​​93 million miles away? The answer might surprise you, and while we’ve dodged the biggest threats in recent decades, there is a precedent for solar flares, which would cause more damage than ever in an age where we are all so reliant on satellite and electrical technology.

What is a Solar Flare?

Let’s take it back to basics. Solar flares are effectively eruptions within the Sun’s atmosphere made up of electromagnetic radiation. They often cause ejections and solar particle events which can interact with the earth’s magnetic field and can penetrate our atmosphere.

These solar flares and storms occur due to the release of intense energy that is stored within the Sun’s atmosphere. It is largely accepted that they happen when this stored energy accelerates the charged particles in its plasma and causes radiation, sending the impact to earth and beyond.

A particularly big solar flare can release over 1000 ergs of energy. That may not mean much to you, so to put it into context, this is around ten million times the release of energy that may happen during a volcano exploding here on Earth. It’s hard to wrap your head around that kind of force.

A Historic Precedent – The Carrington Event

In August and September 1859, the world would feel the effects of The Carrington Event, named after the British amateur astronomer who first spotted the solar activity on the surface of the Sun.

On 2nd September 1859, telegraphs around the world stopped transmitting due to the electromagnetic influence of the storm, but some operators found that if they unplugged the batteries from their telegraphs they would work purely using auroral current. The London Stock exchange released a statement which included some guesswork on what was happening with the storms:

“Owing to the state of the atmosphere, and the prevalence of what are known as “earth currents,” the telegraphic wires were unable to work from early this morning.”

The Carrington Event also meant that the Northern Lights and Southern Lights were visible in locations such as Cuba and Honolulu, plus Santiago, in Chile.

Will We See a Solar Storm Soon?

Solar flares are happening regularly. The question really should be “will we see a solar storm as big as The Carrington Event soon?”

Solar flares are predicted to increase in the next few years. In solar cycle 25, we are still far from the peak of the Sun’s activities. The “solar maximum” of the cycle is expected to be hit in 2025 and the energy being released from the star will further increase.

We’re already seeing some fairly large solar flares being expelled by the Sun. Owing to solar activity, the Northern Lights were recently visible as far South as Norfolk, with photos tweeted from Brancaster Staithe on the North Norfolk coast.

A G2 geomagnetic storm happened on 7th August 2022, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center predicting further storms to continue into the rest of the month.

A G2 storm is not particularly severe. The scale of storms runs from G1 (the weakest) to G5 (the strongest) and while we rarely see G4 or G5 storms, the G1 and G2 storms can occur many times in a month. This is becoming more regular, too. Fortunately, these are not severe enough to cause catastrophic damage.

Science Alert explains that the scale didn’t exist at the time of the Carrington Event, but the severity of the event is undeniable.

“Nowadays the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses the Geomagnetic Storms scale to measure the strength of these solar eruptions. The Carrington Event would have been rated G5.”

NASA has stated that this solar cycle is expected to be similar in severity to the last. That’s not bad news, the previous cycle didn’t throw up any Carrington-level storms. However, it doesn’t mean there is no risk, and with solar activity on the rise as we approach 2025 (July 2025 being the projected peak) it is important to consider what could happen. Nobody can rule out the solar flares and storms on the more severe end of the spectrum. The Sun is unpredictable.

The Space Weather Prediction Center is staffed every hour of every day, as we simply never know what the sun could do. The NOAA also plans for the Space Weather Follow-On L-1 observatory to launch in 2024.

The Potential Damage of Severe Solar Storms

We’ve come a long way since the age of the telegraph. While the inconvenience caused in the 1850s by a solar event was fairly tame, our reliance on electricity and satellites has become such that solar flares could cause a huge amount of disruption.

GPS systems would be one of the first victims, and the fact that GPS technology is so embedded in travel and shipping means there could be hazards as a result. Planes and boats would be at risk.

Satellites mean that communication systems all over the world would go down, and networks would potentially go dark for days.

Your card transactions, access to the internet, and the ability to communicate with loved ones far away may be wiped out in a solar storm, at least temporarily.

Power grids may also go down. A geomagnetic storm that was a fraction as severe as The Carrington Event happened in Canada in 1989 and led to magnetic currents tripping circuit breakers and damaging transformers. Five million people lost their power supply for nine hours. A more severe storm could have even more profound effects which have the potential to last days or even weeks, and cause permanent damage.

Some scientists predict that we are “due” an event of this scale, and governments, including the British Government, have been criticised for not doing enough to prepare. The Government’s “Space Weather Preparedness Strategy” is the closest we have to a plan, which hasn’t filled all scientists with confidence. 

Thanks to the organisations monitoring the Sun and its activities, we would know in advance if there were to be a solar event on this scale, and warnings could be put in place, but it is likely we would get less than 20 hours to prepare. On a personal level, do you need to become self-sufficient in preparation? Probably not. Should pressure be put on the government to make more of a concrete plan and robust infrastructure? Almost definitely.

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