Next solar storm may hit Earth? Are we really prepared for it? What NASA said

As we enter the Solar Maximum period, how prepared is Earth for the next solar storm? What NASA said. Also know what is a solar storm.

| Updated on: Aug 21 2022, 23:17 IST
Solar Flare
We have witnessed the biggest geomagnetic storm recorded in history back in 1858. (
Solar Flare
We have witnessed the biggest geomagnetic storm recorded in history back in 1858. (

The Sun has entered a new solar cycle during which it starts shooting matter into space that brews an inferno for the Earth. These solar storms are mostly not extremely powerful, but that is not always the case. A solar storm, if it is powerful enough, can destroy civilisation as we know it today. The solar storm that always comes to the front, when we are talking about the really powerful ones, is one branded as the Carrington Event. On September 1, 1859, British astronomers Richard Carrington and Richard Hodgson were tracking a large, irregular sunspot on the Sun when a tremendous flare appeared over it all of a sudden. The flare was observed by Carrington as "intensely bright" and "moving from the left to the right of the sunspot in just about 5 minutes." Then, as quickly as the flare appeared, it vanished completely. However, it had brewed a solar storm that was intensely large, as became clear soon enough. Within days, the Earth witnessed the dazzling auroras on the poles. However, even in those technologically very poor days, the solar storm caused communications lines to carry electricity and things caught fire spontaneously. The Carrington Event is still known as the strongest solar storm to hit Earth.

Not that the Sun stopped generating a big enough solar storm since then. It has continued, but Earth was lucky enough that none of them were shot directly at it - they missed Earth, many times by the proverbial whisker. Now that the new solar cycle has started, fear has been expressed that a new, very powerful solar storm, may hit the Earth and that humanity is not prepared for it. In short, it will cause a catastrophe.

What is a solar storm?

When the Sun emits matter or energy in the form of solar flares and coronal mass ejections a stream of electrical charges and magnetic fields is shot outwards into space and these cause what we generally refer to as solar storms. Solar storms can travel at about 3 million miles per hour. Just imagine being hit by something like that. Fortunately, the earth's atmosphere is robust enough to absorb the impact, but still some of the energy reaches the ground. That means, a solar storm that is big enough can hit earth with devastating impact.

Alexa Halford, an associate chief at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center told Astronomy that these events will only rise as we approach a solar maximum, which occurs every 11 years or so. Sun remains the most active during this time. There is a possibility that another large solar flare will occur around this time. It will be a chance to evaluate how successfully our safety measures and procedures can withstand the surge of solar particles.

When the Sun erupts with electromagnetic radiation, this is known as a solar flare. These bursts usually last a few minutes, but they can even continue longer. However, not every solar flare or coronal mass ejection will impact the Earth. The size and direction of the solar outburst are the most important factors for its impact on the Earth. This means that a solar flare that erupts on the Sun's other side from the Earth will not have any effect on us as it is has not been directed towards it.

Unfortunately, if everything goes wrong, the result could be devastating. If a solar flare causes a high in energy coronal mass ejection, and the particles from it hit straight towards the Earth, and if the ejected material's magnetic field and Earth's magnetic field are anti-aligned, then the damage to our planet will be heavy. Infrastructure, telecommunications, and much more will leave the maximum damage.

Similarly, large solar storms have struck Earth in March 1989 that caused serious damage on Earth. The storm took out the power stations in Quebec and parts of New England for nine hours. Due to an oversupply of power in the grid, power transformers even melted.

What safety measures have we taken for solar flares?

The 1989 event caught the eye of infrastructure planners to prevent catastrophic failure, power companies began incorporating safety features such as tripwires into the energy system. These tripwires are set to turn off if power climbs too quickly, limiting damage and preventing transformer burnout, as had happened in 1989.

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First Published Date: 07 Jan, 21:20 IST