How a Solar Storm Could Affect You

It might be able to take down the internet

Key Takeaways

  • An internet rumor about a giant solar storm heading toward earth is false, but it could happen in the future. 
  • Scientists are divided over just how much damage a blast of solar particles could do to technology. 
  • It’s hard to calculate the odds of a significant solar storm, but we may be overdue for a big one.
Someone looking through a door outside with light flares overlaid on top of the image.

Tara Moore / Getty Images

The good news is that a recent internet rumor about an impending solar storm to hit the Earth is false. 

The bad news, however, is that a massive solar storm could impact our planet soon. Scientists are divided over just how much damage a blast of solar particles could do to technology. 

"Space weather can damage satellites, damage the power grid, expose people in aircraft at high latitudes and in spacecraft to radiation, interrupt radio communications," David Hysell, a professor of atmospheric science at Cornell University, told Lifewire in an email interview. "There are already mitigation strategies in place for these possibilities, but there is room for improvement. Better forecasts would be welcome." 

Stormy Weather

A story about a major solar storm was reported in news outlets, but it turned out to be based on false information. NASA reported a large solar flare on July 3, which did cause radio blackouts, but that has long since passed Earth. "The sun emitted a significant solar flare peaking at 10:29 a.m. EDT on July 3, 2021," NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory wrote in its official blog.

It’s hard to calculate the odds of a major solar storm, but we may be overdue for a big one. The last sizeable solar storm was the Carrington Event in 1859.  

Someone using a smart phone with a bright sun behind them.

Tim Robberts / Getty Images

"Since then, we have been lucky that our sun has been behaving itself," Meredith Ann MacGregor, a professor of planetary sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Lifewire in an email interview. "The risk for a large event increases as the sun enters the 'maximum' period of the solar cycle.  The next solar maximum will be between 2024 and 2026."

During solar storms, the high energetic particles, electric currents, and electromagnetic energy flowing into the upper atmosphere increase, Yue Deng, a physics professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"For example, the enhanced electric currents in the geospace environment can induce currents on the power lines, which damage the transformer," Deng added. 

Curious to see what’s coming from the sun? You can visit the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center at http://spaceweather.gov, the US government’s official source for space weather forecasts, watches, warnings, and alerts.

In the worst-case scenario, a major storm could cause a black-out in a large area, such as the whole of North America, and failure of the communication system, Deng said. 

The internet could also be affected. "Electricity is such a critical infrastructure for our society," Deng added. "If we lose power for several days, the internet and some other basic supplies for your daily life may become difficult." 

Deng suggested that users might want to consider having a backup electric generator at home to prepare for a major solar event. 

"The risk for a large event increases as the Sun enters the 'maximum' period of the solar cycle.  The next solar maximum will be between 2024 and 2026."

But Don’t Worry Too Much

Not everyone agrees that a giant solar storm would cause much damage. The most likely scenario is that a storm would have only a modest impact on the power grid, well within the limits that power companies can manage, space weather researcher Mike Hapgood told Lifewire in an email interview. 

In a severe solar storm, the grid might lose too much of the power that makes it work, Hapgood said. In that case, the grid voltage will drop, leading to localized blackouts lasting several hours while the power companies work to restore power. 

Hapgood also dismisses the idea that the internet might be shut down indefinitely. 

"The routers will come back once the electricity comes back," he said. "If you are lucky and you still had a mobile phone signal (i.e., the base station still has power), you could switch from broadband to mobile internet. I did that last year when some idiot dug up our electricity supply cable. I was able to still meet online with colleagues in other countries using battery power, with my laptop connected to my phone."

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