How devastating could a major solar storm be to Earth in the internet-connected modern world? NASA says the destruction could be massive.
A solar storm can be deadly. We all know it, we’ve read about it, and every time a new solar storm blasts through space to Earth, we read about it in the headlines. But how devastating can a major solar storm be? You will be forgiven for taking lightly the space weather phenomenon that causes beautiful aurora. But in reality, it is one of nature’s most destructive forces. We just haven’t seen its true magnitude until now, but it’s happened on Earth before. And while it may not directly kill people, it can certainly create situations that can lead to mass deaths. As NASA continues its research into solar storms, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections (CME), we have uncovered much about the destructive potential of solar storms.
Recently, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) history when on Feb. 15, the Solar Orbiter spacecraft captured unprecedented images of a solar eruption. This is the first time we’ve seen such a detailed picture of the event, and it taught the astronomy community much more about these destructive events on the sun’s surface. But NASA has been observing these solar flares and solar storms for a long time and has found that the energy they release is exponentially greater than any nuclear weapon on Earth. According to the space agency, “the explosions, called solar flares, can release as much energy as a billion one-megaton atomic bombs.”
The Destructive Power of a Solar Storm
But luckily we are millions of miles away from the sun and solar flares in and of themselves are not a challenge we face. But the resulting solar storm is the real danger looming over planet Earth. And to be fair, it’s still not enough to kill on the planet, but it is capable of destroying all satellites around the Earth, knockout power grids, and all forms of communication, even the Internet. While Earth’s atmosphere absorbs most of the energy emitted by the sun, but if a solar storm is large enough, this energy can reach Earth and cause infrastructure damage here. And yes, it could also hit the Internet, as the deep-sea cables that carry the Net to most countries have certain equipment that can be destroyed by a powerful solar storm. It will take months to restore it. Moreover, no country is prepared for that possibility. Since most of our medical infrastructure is dependent on electricity and the Internet, chaos in our hospitals and other places is conceivable.
In fact, it is not mere speculation. NASA tells us about the events that have already happened in the past and the devastation caused by solar storms. In September 1859, the most intense geomagnetic storm in recorded history, the Carrington event, disrupted telegraph systems around the world. In March 1989, Hydro-Quebec’s electrical grid collapsed due to geomagnetic currents. This event led to a general power outage that lasted more than 9 hours and affected more than 6 million people.
And these events took place in the past, when sirbptial technology was still developing and there weren’t nearly as many satellites in the sky as there are today. But why is damage to satellites such a big concern for people on Earth? NASA responds to this in a message. “In an increasingly technological world, where almost everyone is dependent on cell phones and GPS not only controls your in-car mapping system, but also airplane navigation and the extremely accurate clocks that control financial transactions, space weather is serious business,” the website reads.
And that’s the biggest concern. In a world where everything from airlines, stock markets, hospitals, emergency services and much more uses electricity and the internet, a direct hit on these channels will immediately shut down all those services. While solar storms can’t physically damage us, these things can cause not only great financial damage, but the loss of countless lives as a side effect of the entire system’s collapse.