A few days ago, the sun woke up from a years-long slumber, triggering the strongest geomagnetic storm observed in years. It’s the start of a new 11-year cycle that continues through 2030 and poses a huge threat to the Earth.
Solar cycles, also called solar magnetic activity cycles, occur in roughly 11-year periodic changes in which the sun’s activity is measured by the variation in the number of observed sunspots occurring on the solar surface.
The sun is now in what is called Solar Cycle 25, a pattern of sunspot activity that began in December 2019. This cycle is expected to reach its peak in 2025 and to continue until around 2030.
The Danger of Solar Storms
Geomagnetic waves unleashed by solar storms hurtle some 90 million miles across space toward Earth. These events are called coronal mass ejections (CME). Such eruptions create invisible waves that can have devastating effects on Earth when they strike its magnetic field.
The most powerful geomagnetic storm on record is called the Carrington Event, which occurred in 1859. Telegraph lines became electrified during the event. They zapped operators and set offices ablaze across North America and Europe.
Technology has come a long way since then. Such an event today could cripple electrical grids, jam communications and knock out cellphones, damage or take down communication satellites, and even bathe airline crews and passengers in dangerous levels of radiation. It becomes even scarier when you think of how reliant we are on computers. We’re even poised to turn the wheel over to self-driving vehicles!
Only four years ago, in 2017, solar storms disrupted radio communications at the same time category 5 hurricane Irma was tearing through the Caribbean. Two years before that, in 2015, global positioning systems (GPS) were knocked out by solar storms in the US Northeast.
How Big Is the Threat?
The biggest threat from solar cycles is the damage they can do to communication satellites and worldwide electrical grids.
A 2017 paper in the Journal of the American Geophysical Union predicted space weather could cripple power grids and may affect as much as 66% of the U.S. population. It estimated that the economic losses could reach a potential $41.5 billion a day.
During a talk at a solar weather conference last month, Caitlin Durkovich, a special assistant to President Joe Biden and senior director of resilience and response in the National Security Council, said: “It is still remarkable to me the number of people, companies, who think space weather is Hollywood fiction.
One recent study suggested that the United States should harden its electrical grid and found that doing so would have $27 billion worth of benefits to the US power industry, Phys.org reported.