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"Only a matter of time": an engineer explains how a solar storm can wreak havoc on Earth and destroy society

Maria ShevchukNews
The next solar storm could bring all areas of life to a standstill. Source: Depositphotos

A magnetic storm can have more serious consequences than just a headache or feeling unwell. In history, there have been events that could have a detrimental effect on modern telecommunications systems and disrupt human functioning for even a few months.

Recently, astronomers observed events that were rated G5 on a scale of geomagnetic storms from 1 to 5. This affected GPS communications, in particular, the control of tractors, which requires centimeter accuracy, Study Finds writes.

More severe storms could result in trillions of dollars in monetary losses and risk to people. The storm will affect most electrical systems that people use every day.

Magnetic storms occur when a large bubble of superheated gas called plasma is ejected from the surface of the Sun and strikes the Earth. This phenomenon is known as a coronal mass ejection,

The plasma of a coronal ejection consists of a cloud of protons and electrons, which are electrically charged. When they reach the Earth, they interact with the magnetic field surrounding the planet. This leads to a distortion and weakening of the magnetic field, which in turn causes various natural phenomena, including the appearance of the aurora borealis in uncharacteristic places.

Geomagnetic storms in history

One of the strongest magnetic storms wreaked havoc on one of the earliest electronic technologies. On September 1 and 2, 1859, telegraph systems around the world catastrophically failed. Telegraph operators reported receiving electric shocks, telegraph paper catching fire, and that they could operate with disconnected batteries.

In the evenings, the aurora borealis could be seen as far south as Colombia. It is usually characteristic of higher latitudes in northern Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia.

''Only a matter of time'': an engineer explains how a solar storm can wreak havoc on Earth and destroy society

What the world experienced that day, now known as the Carrington Event, was the largest recorded case of a geomagnetic storm, significantly stronger than the storm in May 2024.

Geomagnetic storms have been recorded since the early 19th century, and scientific data from Antarctic ice core samples (fragments) indicate an even more powerful phenomenon that occurred around 774 AD, known as the Miyake event.

Solar flares cause large amounts of cosmic rays to hit the Earth's upper atmosphere, which in turn produce carbon-14, a radioactive isotope of carbon. The Miyake event caused the largest and fastest rise in carbon-14 levels in history.

The storm, 60% smaller than Miyake, occurred around 993 AD. Ice core samples have shown that large-scale storms with the same intensity as the Miyake and Carrington events occur on average once every 500 years.

Scientists were able to estimate the strength of the Carrington event based on the fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field recorded by observatories at the time. It was not possible to measure the magnetic fluctuations of the Miyake event. Instead, the scientists noted that the carbon-14 content of tree rings from that period increased.

The Miyake event led to a 12% increase in carbon-14 content. In comparison, the Carrington event led to an increase in carbon-14 content of less than 1%. So compared to the Miyake event, it was probably insignificant.

Killer power

Today, a geomagnetic storm of the same intensity as the Carrington event would affect more than just telegraph wires. The consequences could be catastrophic, given the ever-increasing dependence on electricity and new technologies.

''Only a matter of time'': an engineer explains how a solar storm can wreak havoc on Earth and destroy society

Geomagnetic storms generate induced currents that flow through the electrical grid and can exceed 100 amps. They enter electrical components connected to the grid, such as transformers, relays, and sensors. One hundred amps is equivalent to the power provided to many households. Currents of this size can cause internal damage to components, leading to large-scale power outages.

In March 1989, a geomagnetic storm three times smaller than the Carrington event occurred in Quebec, Canada. The storm led to the destruction of the Hydro-Quebec power grid. During the storm, high magnetically induced currents damaged a transformer in New Jersey and tripped the grid's circuit breakers. In this case, the outage left five million people without power for nine hours.

Communication disruptions

In addition to electrical failures, communications will be disrupted on a global scale. Internet providers may fail, which in turn will deprive various systems of the ability to communicate. High-frequency communication systems, such as surface-to-air, short-wave, and ship-to-ship radio communications, would be disrupted.

Satellites in orbit around the Earth may be damaged by induced currents from the geomagnetic storm that will burn out their circuit boards. This will lead to interruptions in satellite telephone communications, the Internet, radio and television.

''Only a matter of time'': an engineer explains how a solar storm can wreak havoc on Earth and destroy society

In addition, when geomagnetic storms hit the Earth, the increase in solar activity causes the atmosphere to expand outward. This expansion changes the density of the atmosphere in which satellites orbit. A higher-density atmosphere creates resistance for the satellite, which slows its movement. And if it is not transferred to a higher orbit, it can fall back to Earth.

Another area that could potentially affect everyday life is navigation systems. Almost every mode of transportation, from cars to airplanes, uses GPS for navigation and tracking. Even portable devices such as cell phones, smart watches, and tracking tags rely on GPS signals sent from satellites. Military systems rely heavily on GPS for coordination. Other military detection systems, such as over-the-horizon radar and submarine detection systems, could be disabled, harming national defense.

In terms of the Internet, a geomagnetic storm on the scale of the Carrington event could cause geomagnetic-induced currents in the undersea and terrestrial cables that form the backbone of the Internet, as well as in the data centers that store and process everything from email and text messages to scientific datasets and artificial intelligence tools. This could potentially bring down the entire network and prevent servers from communicating with each other.

Only a matter of time

It's only a matter of time before another major geomagnetic storm hits the Earth. A storm the size of the Carrington event would cause massive damage to electrical and communications systems around the world, with outages lasting for weeks.

If the storm is the size of the Miyake event, its effects would be catastrophic for the world, with possible outages lasting months or even longer. Even with space weather warnings from NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, the world will only have a few minutes to a few hours of warning.

Experts point out that it is extremely important to continue researching ways to protect electrical systems from the effects of geomagnetic storms. How can this be done? For example, by installing devices that can protect vulnerable equipment, such as transformers. It is also worth developing strategies to regulate the load on the grid when solar storms are approaching. In short, it is important to work now to minimize damage from the next analog of the Carrington event.

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