We prepare for storms to knock out power to our homes and businesses all the time, yet there are storms that we don't prepare for, ones that travel through space, that can be just as impactful.
In addition to blasting out light and heat, our Sun also releases strong storms. Like storms on Earth, these storms are eruptions of energy and material from the Sun.
"The sun is threaded with lots of magnetic fields. These are like the ones that hold a magnet onto a fridge, but thousands and thousands of times more powerful," says C. Alex Young, a heliophysicist for NASA. "These magnetic fields can get all twisted up, kind of like a rubber band. When they get all twisted up, like when you twist a rubber band to its limit, they're going to pop. Those magnetic fields can also pop, releasing energy."
The sun can also release millions of tons of material during these explosions, called coronal mass ejections, or CME's. The energy released from these flares could power the earth for the next one hundred thousand years. When one goes off, the earth's atmosphere and magnetic field get a pretty good workout.
The atmosphere heats up and expands in this situation, causing satellites to loose orbit, GPS is disrupted, the power grid may fail, and our communications around the globe are interrupted.
"That's relatively short term, we are talking minutes to hours. The size of the flare tells us how much it heats up the atmosphere. We've made satellites more robust, and can handle the radiation. Power companies are very well aware, and can take measure. It's like if an electrical storm is near your house, you know to unplug your TV. You can do something similar with power grids here on Earth," says Young.
While the impacts are short-lived, there are very rare cases to watch out for as well, such as the Carrington Event of 1859. That solar storm was powerful enough create northern lights all the way to the equator, and fry telegraph wires on the ground. Thankfully, a blast of that magnitude occurs once every five thousand to ten thousand years, but we still have to monitor and research to be ready for the next one.
"We don't really see this kind of doomsday scenario. Even if a Carrington Event happened today, while it would have a large impact, it would certainly knock out power and communications, I don't think we'd see this kind of global catastrophe," adds Young.
For now, there isn't anything we can do on Earth to prevent a solar storm. You can, however, have an emergency plan in case the power goes out, which is a good idea whether the storm comes from space or on Earth. Stay curious about this subject, and encourage research into this topic. You can encourage your legislator too. There is a bill in congress right now that will help fund future research on devastating solar storms and nuclear attacks designed to destroy all electronics.
NASA also plans further research into solar storms by launching a probe in 2018 to further study the sun, getting closer to the Sun than any spacecraft has so far.