A solar storm is coming. Should we be worried? | Science | In-depth science and technology reporting | DW


Earth is expected to experience a solar storm on Thursday and Friday, a week after experiencing what some scientists have dubbed a “sun burp” – also known as a “coronal mass ejection”.

If you live near the Northern or Southern Hemispheres, you may be able to see the Northern Lights within the next couple of days, and Earth could experience minor geomagnetic effects.

The intensity of solar storms is classified into five levels by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): G1-G5. The G represents the geomagnetic effects triggered by the plasma cloud. Level 5 corresponds to a very strong effect, while level 1 corresponds to a “minor” effect.

The current solar storm is rated G1, according to NOAA. Most will barely notice it – only a few will register it as a natural light show.

In other words, the world isn’t going to end anytime soon, even though some news reports make it sound that way. Every once in a while, a solar storm rushes Earth, causing an avalanche of articles warning of potential disruption to the world’s power supply and telephone and satellite communications.

These claims may be overstated. But it would be a mistake to dismiss them altogether as mere alarmism.

Solar storms make aurora borealis, like those pictured in Norway, much easier to detect in the night sky.

Peak in 2025

The sun follows 11-year solar cycles. The current one will peak in 2025, scientists say, when eruptions will be more intense and extreme.

This could be cause for concern. Our existing Internet communication structure is vulnerable to severe solar storms, according to a 2021 study from the University of California at Irvine.

According to author Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, if a particularly strong solar storm were to crash into Earth, it would not only have the power to disrupt power grids and satellites, but also cripple the internet in the long term. She said our internet infrastructure is not designed to withstand severe solar storms.

Communication via unprotected satellites (such as GPS navigation systems) and undersea cable repeaters, which are installed every 50 to 150 kilometers to amplify communication signals over long connecting routes, is particularly vulnerable. Very strong electromagnetic interference could completely paralyze the sensitive system.

And if the Internet were to go down for a single day in the United States, the damage would be estimated at 7 billion dollars (6.9 billion euros) in the United States alone.

What happens during a solar storm?

During a solar storm, the sun ejects large amounts of electrons and protons, causing a cloud of cosmic rays to fly towards Earth.

By distorting the Earth’s magnetic field, solar storms amplify the polar auroras visible at the edges of the northern and southern hemispheres. Charged particles from the solar wind are derived from the Earth’s magnetic field and travel along field lines toward the Earth’s poles, where they cause bright bands or arcs of different colors north or south of the polar circles.

Earth hasn’t seen the full impact of solar storms

As early as 1843, astronomer Samuel Heinrich Schwabe discovered that solar activity follows certain cycles, peaking approximately every eleven years.

The strongest solar storm measured on Earth to date was the so-called “Carrington Event” in 1859, when the arrival of charged particles caused blackouts in North American and European telegraph networks and auroras polar have been observed as far as Rome and Hawaii.

Over a hundred years later, in March 1989, a solar storm in the Canadian province of Quebec crippled the entire power grid. Flashovers in electrical distribution systems left some six million people sitting in the dark for nine hours.

Northern lights in Finland

Studies indicate that Earth has yet to experience a massive solar storm that could seriously impact our telecommunications infrastructure, but the possibility is there.

In July 2012, an extremely powerful “Carrington” caliber solar storm narrowly missed Earth, according to NASA.

“Had the solar flare occurred a week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of sight,” the NASA study said.

Suggestions for a more robust Internet

Today, an eruption like the “Carrington Event” could cripple digital infrastructure in large parts of the world in minutes. For months or even years, Jyothi estimates, large areas would be without communications or power.

Jyothi also provides concrete suggestions on how the Internet infrastructure could be made more robust. One possibility, she said, would be to move internet infrastructure south, for example to Central and South America, because northern latitudes are more susceptible to solar storms.

It also suggests shorter and therefore more resilient internet connections, such as in Europe and Asia, and the installation of additional aerial cables, less vulnerable than long submarine cables requiring many repeaters.

Edited by: Carla Bleiker


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