Solar storms can disrupt satellites and GPS—and they happen more often. Here’s what you need to do to prepare

On May 23, 1967, a solar storm almost triggered a nuclear war.

It was the height of the Cold War, and the storm disrupted radar and radio communications in the US and UK. The US military thought it was the USSR that disabled the systems and was preparing for war with the Soviet Union, according to research into the event.

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But just in time, military space weather researchers revealed that the disruptions were not caused by the USSR and were in fact due to solar activity.

This wasn’t the only solar storm to hit Earth — and it won’t be the last, experts say.

Solar storms – or “sun burps” as astronomer Dr. Brad Tucker calls them – occur more frequently and can release up to 100,000 times more energy than all the power plants on earth can generate in a year.

In the decades since 1967, we’ve grown increasingly dependent on satellites, radio signals and GPS systems, and experts say we should be prepared for the damage solar storms could wreak on our world.

What is a solar storm?

Tucker, an astronomer at Mount Stromlo Observatory in Canberra, says storms are caused by solar flares.

“The sun is this giant magnetic bulb, and when some of that magnetism changes, it can cause flares on the sun’s surface,” says Tucker.

“And when these eruptions happen, it blows out gas. We call this a coronal mass ejection.”

Some storms are so small that we don’t really notice them, but others are so big that they can affect life on Earth.

Occasionally, these so-called “sun burps” can hit the earth directly.

The size of solar storms depends on the Sun’s 11-year cycle, and Tucker says we’re currently at the “widest peak of the curve” and experiencing the maximum impact of solar storms.

“So we’re going to expect more solar storms over the next three or four years, maybe into 2025 or even a little beyond,” he says.

“This can vary from just one or two every few months or a year to one a week.”

Solar flare captured in October 2015. Recognition: NASA

Are more solar storms a problem?

Satellite, communications and GPS systems play a critical role in daily life on Earth, and this dependency has increased since the last peak in solar storms 11 years ago.

The World Economic Forum reported that 2,666 operational satellites were orbiting the Earth in 2020, almost half of which were providing communications services.

The report predicts that the total number of satellites could reach 15,000 by 2028.

Those technological changes will add another headache in the event of a solar storm, Tucker says.

“We live in such a connected world, ruled by satellites, even really random things that you might not think about,” he says.

“Things like Internet transmissions, when your computer communicates with the network, have to be accurate to a split second, especially things like bank transfers.”

Other services and systems that could be affected include heating and air conditioning, public transportation and fuel distribution, according to the US government’s Federal Emergency Management Agency.

During major solar storms, network and satellite outages can last up to two days if individuals and businesses don’t take proper precautions and preparation, Tucker said.

“In the late 1980’s in Quebec, Canada … (a solar storm) caused about $2 billion worth of damage to the power system. And people were without power for weeks.”

But it was the Carrington event in 1859 that remains the largest recorded solar storm on Earth. Not only did it cause tremendous damage to telegraph systems, but it also triggered auroras all the way down to the equator.

According to Tucker, these auroras could have been visible from Darwin.

According to Geoscience Australia, storms the magnitude of the Carrington event are expected to occur every 150 years.

Solar storms can cause aurora borealis. Recognition: Martial Trezzini/AP

What can you do about solar storms?

In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology’s space weather services forecast space weather – just like normal weather forecasts.

According to Tucker, businesses and individuals should monitor these forecasts and prepare for potential outages to minimize disruption.

“It’s no different on Earth. If there is a storm, it depends on your individual preparedness, your company or your region.

“It needs to be a bit more coordinated.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian government has been preparing for other unprecedented events that could have a major impact on daily life, including severe space weather, Tucker said.

Geoscience Australia monitors the weather in space, providing individuals and businesses with information to protect themselves from the effects of solar storms.

A solar probe will be sent on a seven-year journey to study solar storms on the Sun’s surface.

A solar probe will be sent on a seven-year journey to study solar storms on the Sun’s surface.

What can you do?

The US government’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has tips for individuals to follow during severe space weather.

Individuals should create an emergency kit, create a family communication plan, keep the car’s gas tank at least half full, and keep extra batteries or external chargers for devices.

It also provides advice on what to do during and after a space weather event, e.g. For example, unplugging electrical appliances and throwing away food after a power outage.

Tucker advises staying informed and prepared, just as we would for severe weather events on Earth.

“Imagine if you were completely dependent on communications that required electricity or satellites, you could do without them. Having a radio with batteries can go a long way, right?

“Make sure you’re just a little bit prepared so you know what’s going on and don’t feel in the dark.”

NSW farmers find SpaceX space junk on their properties.

NSW farmers find SpaceX space junk on their properties. Solar storms can disrupt satellites and GPS—and they happen more often. Here’s what you need to do to prepare

James Brien

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