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 menacing—and future storms could be even worse than the ones we’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 today’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 isn’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 don’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.