- The sun is entering a period of peak activity that will last for several years, an expert said.
- This means that the sun will produce more solar flares, which are powerful bursts of energy.
- Solar flares can disrupt radio communications and electrical power grids on Earth.
The sun may be waking up after nearly a decade of relative calm, scientists say — and that could cause trouble on Earth.
The solar storms that rage 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 maxima occur approximately every 11 years, and have not been a major problem in the past.
However, scientists fear that our reliance on electricity and connectivity could mean we are far more vulnerable to their influences this time around.
The sun posts tilt
The Sun is a large ball of plasma, heated in the center. The plasma, which is made of charged particles, boils towards the surface, cools and sinks back towards the core again.
That movement, called convection, is what creates strong magnetic fields at the poles and smaller, localized magnetic fields on the surface of the Sun.
Every 11 years or so, the sun becomes “convectively unstable,” meaning the magnetic fields on the sun become so unstable that the magnetic north and south poles abruptly reverse, throwing the star’s polarity out of whack, said Mathew Owens, professor of aerospace . physics at the University of Reading.
That instability causes chaos in the magnetic fields on the surface of the Sun, which become much more active. This is when the so-called solar maximum occurs.
Solar storms can ground planes
The sun is much more likely to throw energy our way below its maximum.
As the Sun’s local magnetic field becomes more entangled and crashes into each other, they can explode. Energy and charged particles from the sun are then ejected into space.
That energy can affect communications by messing with the ionosphere, a layer of charged particles in our upper atmosphere. This can cause problems for air traffic.
“Space weather can ground planes,” Owens said. “The FAA will not allow flights if they do not have both radio and satellite communications.”
A 2023 study looking at flight records over 22 years found that flights are 21% more likely to be delayed by at least 30 minutes when the sun is very active.
The rays can change the magnetic fields in the ionosphere, which can affect GPS signals that must penetrate that layer to reach Earth.
Radio signals sent from Earth must also bounce off the ionosphere to get from one point to another, which is less efficient in rough space weather.
Admittedly, radio signals are much less important for basic communication today. But several industries use radio signals to back up other communication systems in case of failure.
There may be a power outage
As the geomagnetic storm messes with the ionosphere’s magnetic charge, it creates currents in the ionosphere. These currents in our upper atmosphere interact with the particles in the ground. The interaction between these particles creates strong electrical currents that can flood infrastructure on Earth.
This can trigger some bizarre phenomena. In one example, in 1972, US military pilots flying south of Haiphong harbor in North Vietnam saw two dozen sea mines explode in the water, for no apparent reason.
A 2018 study that looked at space weather at the time later concluded that this was caused by a massive solar storm.
If the currents flood the electrical grid, they can blow up transformers.
A damaged transformer will not cause much of a problem. But if a huge geomagnetic storm heads toward Earth — a storm so big it would “probably give us auroras down to the equator” — it could cause several transformers to go off at the same time.
It can also overwhelm other transformers that can then blow, knocking out the entire grid, Owens said.
In that case, restarting the grid “could be a matter of weeks or months. Then you lose cooling, you lose power to hospitals, things get pretty serious pretty quickly,” Owens said.
So far we have been lucky. The worst solar storm we’ve seen happened in 1859. But we didn’t rely on electricity as much then as we do now, so the only thing knocked out were telegraph lines.
Nevertheless, a space weather event in 1989 shows how vulnerable we have become. A huge geomagnetic storm that hit Montreal, Quebec, on March 13 that year cut power to six million people for nine hours.
Auroras can get bigger and brighter
When these geomagnetic storms crash into the ionosphere, they can cause the aurora borealis to shine big and clear.
“The northern oval that sits above the north and south poles is a result of currents flowing in the Earth’s atmosphere. And they’re almost always there, but they get a lot stronger when we have a geomagnetic storm going on.” Owens said.
We are starting to see some of the effects of these solar flares. Auroras were seen as far down as the south of the UK on Sunday night, and more are expected over the coming days, the BBC reported.
The sun itself may break out into more beautiful formations. This has already started to happen. NASA discovered a rare polar vortex earlier this month.
Astronauts will become more vulnerable to deadly space radiation
The sun also emits radioactive material called solar particles, which can be dangerous to astronauts.
Humans on Earth are shielded from that 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 space, it can be very dangerous, Owens said.
“If you’re trying to send a crew to the moon or Mars, you really have to worry about these things because it’s a serious, potentially fatal radiation dose,” Owens said.
So far, the astronauts have been lucky. In August 1972, two Apollo crewed missions narrowly escaped a massive solar storm. Apollo 16 landed back in April, while Apollo 17 was launched in December.
“They missed it purely by chance, and it could have been fatal for the astronauts at the time,” Owens said.
But as SpaceX and NASA aim to increase missions in the coming years, they need to prepare for solar storms. The problem is that to date there is no good way to shield astronauts in space, Owens said.
We are probably not prepared for rough space weather
Owens said that if the solar storm of 1859 were to happen today, we would be “far more exposed.”
The problem is that every decade we become more dependent on electrical infrastructure, he said. 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’d had in about a hundred years,” Owens said, adding, “The danger of going from a small cycle to a slightly larger one is that you then realize where all the vulnerabilities are.”
Still, we are not in immediate danger. Physicists predict this cycle won’t be the biggest we’ve ever seen, and we’re getting better at detecting storms so we can prepare for them before they arrive.
Scientists are also learning more and more about our sun. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, for example, is heading toward the Sun right now and will bring us unprecedented images and exciting new data about the Sun in December.
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