A recent eruption on the sun’s surface has some people exclaiming, “What on Earth!?” That’s appropriate since solar flares could have a big effect on our lives.

Solar flares and eruptions “can slam into Earth’s atmosphere and generate powerful electric and magnetic fields. These magnetic storms can occasionally be intense enough to interfere with the operation of high-voltage electricity lines.” That from the magazine of the IEEE.

“Solar Cycle 25” is what some scientists are calling the 2025 expected peak of solar activity. The sun has an eleven-year cycle of activity.

Solar ejection May 25, 2021. Image: NOAA

The recent flare sped to the Earth. This eruption was not huge like some have been. The event is a reminder about what can be, not what happened in the past few weeks.

Some history first. Our continent has felt solar flares in big ways. “On March 10, 1989 astronomers witnessed a powerful explosion on the sun. … On March 12 it actually created electrical currents in the ground beneath much of North America. Just after 2:44 a.m. on March 13, the currents found a weakness in the electrical power grid of Quebec. In less than 2 minutes, the entire Quebec power grid lost power. … New York Power lost 150 megawatts the moment the Quebec power grid went down. The New England Power Pool lost 1,410 megawatts at about the same time.” (NASA)

Billions of tons of plasma in a coronal mass ejection. NASA

The danger isn’t hypothetical. “In 2017, a solar storm caused ham radios to turn to static just as the Category 5 Hurricane Irma was ripping through the Caribbean. In 2015, solar storms knocked out global positioning systems in the U.S. Northeast, a particular concern as self-driving cars become a reality.” (Source)

A 2012 paper said the probability of a huge solar event within a decade is around 12 percent. Insurer Lloyd’s and researcher Atmospheric and Environmental Research said the probability of an extreme solar storm is “relatively low at any given time, it is almost inevitable that one will occur eventually.” (Source)

Beyond the obvious safety and health issues of a power blackout, there are economic impacts. In a study by the American Geophysical Union a “most extreme blackout scenario, affecting 66 percent of the U.S. population, the daily domestic economic loss could total $41.5 billion plus an additional $7 billion loss through the international supply chain.” So far solar-related outages have been hours, not days and weeks in their impact.

100-year storm-induced voltages on the power grid. U.S. Geological Survey/Wiley, IEEE

Several years ago a group if utilities worked together to stockpile essential equipment that might be needed in a solar eruption-caused blackout. The best tool, however, is forecasting. “Armed with the best information, transmission system dispatchers can take immediate action to prevent equipment from overheating, preserve operating service margins and continue to ensure reliable service to customers,” says the Western Area Power Administration.

What about family preparedness? Says NASA, “To begin preparing for the potential loss of electrical power in an extreme geomagnetic storm case, you should build an emergency kit and make a family communications plan.” NASA adds that most solar storms will not cause catastrophic damage to the electric grid. On average, the Earth is impacted by such storms about four times during every 11-year solar cycle.


Feature image from NASA Earth Observatory: “At 4:51 p.m. EDT, on Monday, April 2, 2001, the sun unleashed the biggest solar flare ever recorded, as observed by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite. The flare was definitely more powerful than the famous solar flare on March 6, 1989, which was related to the disruption of power grids in Canada. Luckily, the flare was not aimed directly towards Earth.

Solar ejections are often associated with flares and sometimes occur shortly after the flare explosion. Coronal mass ejections are clouds of electrified, magnetic gas weighing billions of tons ejected from the Sun and hurled into space with speeds ranging from 12 to 1,250 miles per second. Depending on the orientation of the magnetic fields carried by the ejection cloud, Earth-directed coronal mass ejections cause magnetic storms by interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field, distorting its shape, and accelerating electrically charged particles (electrons and atomic nuclei) trapped within.”