The facts on solar storms

Firey expulsions of energy burst from the sun in cycles, and they can disrupt things on Earth when they hit our atmosphere.

The sun, for all its life giving light and warmth, also occasionally hurls charged magnetic particles towards Earth.

These are called solar storms, and can produce a variety of effects that range from power grid blackouts, to Northern Lights that are even more vibrant than usual.

What are solar storms?

These storms happen in natural cycles that occur every 11 years or so. When the sun reverses its magnetic field, it produces a cycle of solar storms.

Storms like this start with sun spots. These are cooler areas of the sun that appear dark when viewed with a telescope.

Then comes an initial solar flare of subatomic particles that resemble a filament blasting out of the sun. These particles hit the Earth just minutes after the initial burst, and can cause radio and radiation disturbances.

After that comes what's called coronal mass ejection. This is a blast of charged particles that looks like a growing bubble and takes a couple days to reach Earth. It's that ejection that could cause magnetic disruptions.

What can they do?

Solar storms can disrupt technology on Earth in three ways: with magnetic, radio and radiation emissions.

These emissions can short-circuit power grids, GPS systems and telecommunication devices.

The Earth's magnetic field tends to attract charged solar particles toward its poles, so Northern countries are especially vulnerable to major solar storms – meaning airline flights could also be disrupted and delayed near the North and South Poles.

Solar storms can supercharge the Northern Lights, making the auroras even more spectacular. When particles find their way to the Earth's poles, they accelerate along the lines of our magnetic field and collide with particles in the atmosphere, which makes them glow.

A perfect storm

On March 13, 1989, a violent solar storm knocked out power across Quebec for more than nine hours during the chilly tail end of winter. The blast of energy and plasma from the sun also caused smaller blackouts and damage to electricity infrastructure in other parts of North America. As solar storms weren't as well researched at the time, it wasn't anticipated and took people by surprise.

According to the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storm cost Hydro-Québec and Public Service Electric and Gas of New Jersey more than $30 million, putting the event on par with damage caused by hurricanes and earthquakes.

Are we at risk?

Solar storms don't harm people, but they do disrupt technology.

In the years since the Quebec storm, there has been a lot of research into exactly how solar storms affect power grids. Increased monitoring and forecasting as well as changes in the design of power grids should mitigate most effects. When experts know a storm is coming, they can power down certain areas to reduce the load, and ensure the storm won't wreak havoc on the system.

Experts also learned that the global positioning system (GPS) is vulnerable to solar outbursts during the last peak around 2002. Satellites can also be powered down to protect them during a solar storm.



With files from the Associated Press