We Have No Idea How Bad Solar Storms Might Get
When the sun really acts up, spewing out heaps of charged particles in a burst called a coronal mass ejection, space weather can get menacingâ€”and future storms could be even worse than the ones weâ€™ve experienced. Solar storms can damage power grids, fry communications satellites and disrupt aircraft electronics. A few oft-cited historical examples: a 1989 solar storm caused billions of dollars in damages in Quebec and triggered a blackout affecting millions. An even bigger storm in 1859 rocked telegraph systems in the U.S. and abroad; the induced currents coursing through the wires were so strong that they ignited fires in telegraph offices. If something like that happened in todayâ€™s vastly more wired world, country-size regions could lose power for months, according to a recent U.K. assessment; the damages could run into the trillions of dollars.
But what if the superstorm of 1859 isnâ€™t even as bad as it gets? The problem is not just that our technological world is vulnerable to stormy space weather, which it is, but also that we donâ€™t really know what kind of storms to expect, according to a commentary in a recent issue of Nature by Mike Hapgood of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the U.K.