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Worse solar storm ahead, scientists say it would be difficult to cope



The strongest solar storm in 20 years did little damage, but worse space weather is approaching, according to Scientific American.

Years of careful planning helped shield against last weekend’s severe space weather, but the report indicates uncertainty in managing a massive event.

An intense enough solar storm could create a ‘geomagnetic storm that would push satellites out of orbit’

For years, warnings about the sun’s potential dangers have been ongoing. If directed at Earth, powerful solar radiation and plasma eruptions can supercharge our atmosphere and magnetic field. It could potentially lead to a global “reset” of much of our modern technology.

An intense enough storm could trigger a geomagnetic event, pushing satellites out of orbit, disrupting vital submarine cables for the Internet, and causing massive blackouts by collapsing power grids, as per Scientific American.

During the recent weekend, when one of the strongest solar storms in 20 years struck Earth, there was little to no damage. This was the result of careful planning by both public and private sectors.

The solar region responsible for the storm has since produced more large flares—fortunately not aimed at Earth due to the sun’s rotation. Despite passing this major test, experts caution against complacency. They stress that more severe solar activity is not a matter of “if,” but “when.”

Shawn Dahl, a space weather forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) called the latest storm a “success story.” Dahl thinks the storm was “nowhere close” to the strength of more powerful historical events. He also warned that it is no time to relax.

Effects of the recent storm

Various scattered reports are already providing some insight into the storm’s disruptive effects. Flight trackers showed airlines rerouting planes to avoid Earth’s poles, where crews and passengers would have been exposed to concerning spikes in cosmic radiation from the storm.

Transpower, New Zealand’s state-owned enterprise managing the nation’s electric power said it had preemptively “switched off some circuits across the country on Saturday [May 11].” As a result, there was “no impact on New Zealand’s electricity supply.”

On May 8, after ground- and space-based telescopes detected multiple explosive outbursts from the sun headed for Earth, the SWPC issued a warning about an imminent severe space weather event. At least seven of these outbursts, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), struck our planet with billions of tons of solar plasma. This interplanetary punch caused Earth’s magnetic field to ring and the upper atmosphere to swell, almost as if bruised.

In Minnesota, the firm Minnesota Power opened capacitor banks to mitigate possible effects of the storm. Similar precautions were likely taken at other power grids around the world.

The storm posed hazards in space as well. NASA said that the seven astronauts on the International Space Station were mostly safe from the storm’s effects but did have to take some precautions.

Last weekend’s solar storm shows that this diligent preparatory work has not been in vain. This time around, everything went according to plan. But when a much stronger storm hits, will we be ready? “The sun is a powerful enemy,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics. “We haven’t seen the worst it can do.”

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