The sun is about to become more active, sending solar storms that disrupt the grid

A bright light from a solar flare is seen here on the sun’s left side in an image taken on June 20, 2013.
NASA/SDO

  • One expert said that the sun is entering a period of peak activity that will last for several years.
  • This means that the Sun will produce more solar flares, which are powerful blasts of energy.
  • Solar flares can disrupt Earth’s radio communications and electrical power grids.

Scientists say the sun may be waking up after nearly a decade of relative calm, and that could cause problems on Earth.

Solar storms that blow on our star during its active period create bursts of electromagnetic energy, which can affect everything from the power grid to GPS signals.

These so-called solar extremes happen about every 11 years, and they haven’t been much of a problem in the past.

However, scientists fear that our reliance on electricity and interconnection may mean that we are more vulnerable to its effects this time around.

The sun’s poles are flipping

NASA captured a strange formation of sunspots in this image.
NASA Sun/Twitter

The sun is a large ball of plasma, heated at its center. The plasma, made up of charged particles, boils toward the surface, then cools and falls back toward the core again.

It is this movement, called convection, that creates strong magnetic fields at the poles and smaller local magnetic fields at the sun’s surface.

Every 11 years or so, space professor Matthew Owens said, the sun becomes “convectively unstable,” which means magnetic fields on the sun become so unstable that the magnetic north and south poles suddenly flip, shifting our star’s polarity out of control. Physics at the University of Reading.

This instability wreaks havoc on the magnetic fields on the sun’s surface, which become more active. That’s when the alleged solar maximum occurs.

Solar storms can cause planes to crash

The sun is likely to throw energy our way during its maximum intensity.

As the sun’s local magnetic fields become more entwined and collide with each other, they can explode. The energy and charged particles from the sun are then expelled into space.

This energy can affect communication by messing with the ionosphere, a layer of charged particles in the upper atmosphere. can cause Air travel problems.

“Space weather can ground flights,” Owens said. “The FAA wouldn’t allow flights if they didn’t have radio and satellite communications.”

a Study 2023 Looking at flight records over 22 years, I found that planes are 21% more likely to be delayed for at least 30 minutes when the sun is very active.

The rays can alter the magnetic fields in the ionosphere, which can affect the GPS signals that must penetrate that layer to reach Earth.

Radio signals sent from Earth also need to bounce off the ionosphere to get from one point to another, which is less efficient in severe space weather.

Granted, radio signals are much less important to basic communications today. But many industries use radio signals to support their other communications systems in the event of a failure.

There may be a power outage

As the geomagnetic storm messes with the magnetic charge of the ionosphere, it creates currents in the ionosphere. These currents in the upper atmosphere interact with particles in the Earth. The interaction between these particles creates powerful electric currents that can engulf infrastructure on Earth.

This can provoke some strange phenomena. In one example in 1972, American military pilots flying south of the port of Haiphong in North Vietnam witnessed twenty sea mines exploding in the water, without any apparent cause.

a Study 2018 Looking at space weather at the time, he later concludes that this was caused by a massive solar storm.

If currents flood the electrical grid, they can blow out transformers.

One damaged transformer will not cause much trouble. But if a massive geomagnetic storm heads toward Earth — one so big it would “probably give us the aurora borealis all the way to the equators” — it could cause several transformers at once.

It could also overwhelm other transformers, which could then explode, destroying the entire network, Owens said.

In this case, getting the grid back up and running, Owens said, “could take weeks or even months. Then you lose refrigeration, you lose power in the hospitals, and things get very dangerous very quickly.”

So far, we’ve been lucky. The worst solar storm we’ve ever seen happened in 1859. But we didn’t rely as much on electricity then as we do now, so the only thing that was down was the telegraph lines.

However, the space weather event in 1989 shows just how vulnerable we are. a A huge geomagnetic storm that struck Montreal, Quebec, on March 13 of that year, cutting power to six million people for nine hours.

The aurora borealis may get larger and brighter

A bright aurora streams across Earth’s horizon over the Indian Ocean northeast of France’s southern and Antarctic lands, August 17, 2022.
NASA

When these geomagnetic storms slam into the ionosphere, they can make the aurora borealis shine big and bright.

“The aurora ovals that sit over the north and south poles are a result of updrafts in Earth’s atmosphere. They are almost always present, but they become much stronger when a geomagnetic storm occurs,” Owens said.

We’re starting to see some of the effects of these solar flares. Northern Lights seen As far away as the south of the UK Sunday evening, and more are expected in the coming days, the BBC reported.

The sun itself may be erupting into more beautiful configurations. This is already starting to happen. NASA spotted a rare polar vortex earlier this month.

Astronauts will become more vulnerable to deadly space radiation

Artist’s impression of a spacecraft landing on the moon.
SpaceX

The sun also releases radioactive material called solar particles, which can be dangerous to astronauts.

Humans on Earth are shielded from this radiation, as most of it bounces off the ionosphere and the rest is absorbed by the atmosphere. Even the International Space Station is still under the protection of the ionosphere.

But if the radiation hits an astronaut in outer space, it could be very dangerous, Owens said.

“If you’re trying to get a crew to the Moon or Mars, you really have to worry about those things because that’s a dangerous, lethal radiation dose,” Owens said.

So far, the astronauts have been lucky. In August 1972, Two manned Apollo missions He narrowly escaped a huge solar storm. Apollo 16 landed again in April, while Apollo 17 launched in December.

“They missed it purely by accident and it could have been fatal for the astronauts at the time,” Owens said.

But as SpaceX and NASA aim to ramp up missions in the coming years, they’ll need to prepare for solar storms. The problem, Owens said, is that, as yet, there is no good way to protect astronauts in space.

We’re probably not prepared for extreme space weather

If the solar storm of 1859 had happened today, Owens said, we would be “much more vulnerable.”

The problem, he said, is that with each decade we become more dependent on electrical infrastructure. And the last solar cycle, which peaked around 2010, was particularly quiet and may have lulled us into a false sense of security.

“It was the smallest we’ve had in about a hundred years,” Owens said, adding, “The risk of going from a small cycle to a slightly larger cycle is that you then realize where all the weaknesses are.”

However, we are not in immediate danger. Physicists predict that this cycle won’t be the biggest we’ve ever seen, and we’re getting better at spotting storms to be able to prepare for them before they come.

Scientists are also learning more and more about our sun. For example, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is heading toward the sun now and will provide us with unprecedented images and exciting new data about the sun in December.

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