By nature of its existence as a magnetic variable star, the sun exhibits fluctuations in energy. This amounts to solar flares, solar winds, and surges in energetic particles, which are commonly referred to as solar activity. The outer atmosphere of the sun can exhibit some very strong solar activity that sometimes causes coronal mass ejections (CME). CMEs are essentially explosive clouds of protons and electrons.


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These clouds can reach Earth’s atmosphere, where they interact with Earth’s magnetic field and cause what is known as a geomagnetic solar flare or a geomagnetic storm. The strong electromagnetic current disruption that results from this activity affects Earth in many ways. Although these storms have always had an impact on Earth, such occurrences are now more detrimental due to current technology infrastructure.

If a solar storm is powerful enough, all types of systems will be impacted, including GPS signal scintillation, high-frequency radio communication, and power grids. Solar flare effects on energy infrastructure can be especially hazardous.

A geomagnetic disturbance that’s strong enough can overload electrical grids and cause blackouts on a mass scale. Geomagnetic disturbances have caused disastrous effects through history, including the Carrington Event of 1859, which crippled the world’s telegraph system and brought the northern lights into the Southern Hemisphere.

Since humans now rely on an even more complex energy infrastructure for survival, predicting and preparing for storms in space is increasingly critical.

Geomagnetic Storm Watch And The “G Scale”

If scientists are able to predict a solar storm traveling towards Earth, its strength, and when its effects will be felt, there may be some hope for protective measures. Currently, capabilities for doing so are limited but growing. Space weather prediction is one of the objectives of NASA’s Heliophysics Divisions and the NOAA.

Space weather detection instruments on NASA spacecraft and a collaboration of NASA and NOAA satellites are used to gather solar images and other data. This information can provide insight into space weather, including geomagnetic disturbances and their severity.

The strength of these storms is measured according to a “G scale”. A solar storm with a G1 rating would amount to a minor or moderate level of intensity, while a G5 solar flare would be catastrophic for our modern technology infrastructure.

A geomagnetic storm of G5 or greater would likely destroy the vast majority of the world’s electrical systems, cripple global communication, and amount to life-threatening situations and trillions of dollars in damage.

The value of predicting these storms and their intensity is similar to predicting major weather events on Earth, such as tornados and hurricanes; while there isn’t much that can be done to stop these forces, predicting their occurrence can make preparation more effective and prevent the extent of the damage.

When Will The Next Big Solar Storm Hit Earth?

Data taken from historic geomagnetic storms and ice core samples have indicated that significant solar storms hit Earth on a somewhat regular basis: usually an average of every 500 years. Smaller geomagnetic flares have happened more recently and still amounted to major power disruptions, such as small solar flare that caused the collapse of the Hydro-Quebec electrical grid in 1989.

The value in knowing when the next big solar storm will hit Earth cannot be overstated, but the ability to do so with accuracy will require major advancements in space weather prediction resources.

Current solar storm prediction capabilities through NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center are limited to a few hours at best. This is far from adequate for protecting all aspects of energy and technology infrastructure, but even a few hours notice can be useful for certain strategies, such as grounding flights that would otherwise lose GPS navigation capabilities and adjusting power grid loads where possible.

Devices that would counter surges and shield energy equipment could also be applied or activated once a storm is detected.

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