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How the Next Big Solar Storm Will Cripple the Planet - the last one was less than 160 years ago

Hilary Brueck , Business Insider SA
 Jun 30, 2018, 05:12 PM

We may not always notice what the sun is up to, sitting some 149 million kilometres away here on Earth. But there's always a chance that it could shoot nasty space weather our way.

On the surface of the sun, giant fiery eruptions can send magnetically charged particles out into space. If these particles come in contact with Earth's magnetic field, they can have dangerous effects. 

If a solar storm pierces Earth's atmosphere, it can send solar particles down onto the planet and weaken our protective magnetic bubble. The biggest solar storms can cause ripple effects in our power systems, heating and even destroying electrical infrastructure. That can send electronic communications haywire, and it's happened several times before.

READ: A big solar storm could wreak havoc on GPS and everything else on your phone

The biggest, most dangerous solar storms are prompted by coronal mass ejections, which are essentially great balls of fire that shoot out from the sun. Scientists still aren't sure what causes these bursts, but they know they're related to the sun's magnetic field. Researchers can observe the bursts about eight minutes after they take off from the sun, which is how much time it takes signals to travel from the sun to Earth.

"The problem is we can’t control that large ball of garbage at the centre of the solar system," astrophysicist Scott McIntosh, who directs the High Altitude Observatory at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, told Business Insider.

He said Earth's upper atmosphere is "wickedly" impacted by the sun's magnetic spewing, which can throw off our delicate modern balance of technology and metal wires. "It's real even if you don't feel it every day," he said.

"You might not, your banking institution might, your power grid company almost certainly does, and your telephone company absolutely does."

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