The Facts on Solar Storms

“Leading scientists are warning that a massive solar storm could trigger a $2 trillion ‘global Katrina’ that short-circuits power grids worldwide.” –Lesley Taylor

If you’ve been keeping up with your online news lately, you may have heard that, undoubtedly, an impending Solar Storm will cause hundreds of billions — if not trillions — of dollars of damage.

The impending storm has been compared to a global Hurricane Katrina. What’s the hullaballoo about?

Last week, the Sun launched forth a powerful Solar Flare, as imaged above by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. What was the big effect of this Solar Flare, the most powerful one in five years?

Image credit: JaneG from Scotland.

Just days later, the Aurora Borealis — as imaged here on February 17th — were absolutely spectacular for northern skywatchers. (The Southern Lights were likely just as spectacular, but no one’s sent me their pictures!) Why’s this? Because the Sun ejects high-energy charged particles!

And, you might wonder, how will this affect me?

Well, if you read the news headlines, what would you think was going to happen?

  • According to the UK’s Daily Mail, Get ready for a ‘global Katrina’: Biggest ever solar storm could cause power cuts which last for MONTHS.
  • According to, “A huge eruption of solar radiation is hitting the Earth… it’s expected to kick off a two-year period of intense solar activity.”
  • The highest price tag come from the Star, authors of the quote atop this page, who contend, “Powerful solar flares ignite a geomagnetic storm that can shoot direct currents into the power grid, [NOAA scientist Joseph] Kunches explained. The domino effect could cripple transformers and special equipment that could take months or years to replace, he said.”
  • And there’s even a huckster selling a Solar Storm Survival Guide, quote-mining the following gem: “Get ready for a once in a life time solar event,” Dr Richard Fisher, head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division said. “We know it’s coming but we don’t know how bad it’s going to be.”

What’s the deal with solar storms?

Well, as you know, the Sun is an active place. With powerful magnetic fields, this plasma (hot, ionized gas) can get accelerated off the surface, and in extreme cases, can get ejected in huge flares, prominences and bursts. Severe storms take place, on average, about once or twice every 11 years.

Image credit: SOHO satellite.

Get a big enough, S-shaped solar prominence, and it will often cause a huge solar storm! Charged particles hurtle towards the Earth at over a thousand kilometers per second (thanks, @4 and @5 below), reaching us after about four days, and then… and THEN…

And then the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere safely shield us from any possible damaging effects.


The two things that can happen, however, are:

  1. The radiation can affect satellites in space, if they were constructed cheaply, and without sufficient radiation shielding.
  2. And they can cause swift changes to the magnetic fields on Earth’s surface.

In other words, we’re not at risk at all, but our electronics may be. How so?

You can induce huge currents, or changes in the magnetic field inside these satellites if they’re far enough away from Earth, which many of our GPS satellites are. Fortunately, we have some satellites (above) monitoring the Sun, so if there’s a solar storm coming, we could be responsible and turn the satellites off while the charged particles head towards them.

Additionally, the induced currents could lead to failures in power grids, power surges, and lots of other phenomena. The power grid failure in Toronto in 1989 can be traced back to a solar storm two full cycles ago. Of course, this could be eliminated by providing extra grounding.

But what if you live in a place where no one’s taken any precautions at all, and you find out the solar storm is coming! What can you do?

Well, the worst that can happen is you’ll get a power surge, so get a surge protector or — if you’re really paranoid — unplug your electronics. Could your car’s electronic ignition get fried by the radiation? Unlikely. Will the intense magnetic fields wipe out all your hard drive data? Also not likely to happen.

I won’t say impossible, and I’m certain that many of the satellites up there right now are both woefully equipped to deal with the radiation (because shielding costs extra) and that the operators won’t shut them down when the storms come, because nobody ever listens to scientists in these situations. But the operators of power grids would have to be idiots to not be prepared for a coming solar storm, and that would never happen. It would be extraordinarily facile to avoid even a single power grid failure, and people have been talking about it for a long time now.

So don’t be paranoid, and don’t even worry about being prepared. But when/if one comes, don’t be afraid to go for a day without your cellphone, or without your wireless internet. And that’s the worst case scenario.