Two solar storms hit Earth this week. How do they affect us?

Scientists have previously warned of an "internet apocalypse".
Chris Young
An illustration of the sun and sun flare with a planet to give scale to the size of the flare.solarseven/iStock

Earth was hit by separate geomagnetic storms on Monday and Tuesday, according to government weather agencies in the U.S. and the U.K. 

Though the geomagnetic storms likely didn't cause any harm, according to a LiveScience report, they bring into focus the potential harm that could come from more powerful storms in the future.

This particular storm was mild, and the most noticeable effect was that it may have allowed people to see the aurora borealis as far south as New York and Idaho in the U.S., according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA said the storm on Monday, March 14, was a category G2 storm, and the one the following day was a G1 — the scale goes up to G5, with 5 being the most extreme.

"Our infrastructure is not prepared"

This week's solar storms were nothing to worry about. As the NOAA points out, our planet is typically hit by more than 2,000 category G1 and G2 solar storms per decade. But what are a few examples of real-world consequences that could come from stronger geomagnetic storms?

The most recent damage from a geomagnetic storm came only last month when a relatively mild event downed 40 SpaceX Starlink satellites during deployment. The storm caused atmospheric density to increase in the satellites' low orbit deployment area, increasing the drag on the machines, which subsequently fell out of orbit.

Satellite and space equipment is the most vulnerable, but the effects can also be felt on Earth. The last really strong solar storm occurred in 1989, and it cut off the electrical supply to more than 6 million people for almost 10 hours in and around Québec. It also halted the Toronto Stock Exchange for hours by crashing a "fault-tolerant" computer. All of that occurred before the advent of the internet, and a similar storm today could cause widespread outages.

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In a paper last year, assistant professor Abdu Jyothi from the University of California, Irvine, warned that we are woefully unprepared for a stronger geomagnetic storm. Jyothi pointed to the fact that the global internet is massively reliant on undersea cables, and their electronic repeaters could be knocked out by a strong solar storm, leading to an "internet apocalypse." In a Wired interview, Jyothi explained that "our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event. We have very limited understanding of what the extent of the damage would be."

The Solar Maximum approaches

Geomagnetic storms are caused when a massive amount of charged particles are expelled from the Sun's corona (outer atmosphere). The outbursts are known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs). They eject outwards at speeds up to several million miles per hour. When they reach Earth, they interact with its protective magnetic field, causing geomagnetic storms, as well as the aurora borealis.

The Sun is nearing the peak of its regular cycle of increased solar activity. The Solar Maximum occurs once every 11 years, and it will next happen at some point around July 2025. Solar activity will likely continue to increase up to that point. While there may be no immediate cause for concern, the Earth's electrical and internet infrastructure may soon be tested like never before.