A solar storm can be truly terrifying. So, how destructive will a solar storm of the highest strength be, if it struck Earth? Find out.
The Sun has entered a new solar maximum phase, which is characterised by higher activity that leads to frequent shooting out of coronal mass ejection (CME). That means the threat of a huge solar storm striking Earth has increased significantly. And yet, most of us do not understand the truly destructive power of a solar storm. Apart from minor incidents of temporary loss of mobile network or cautionary electricity supply cut off, the only way we remember a solar storm or a geomagnetic storm is by aurora borealis or northern lights. These fantastic patterned lights cover the entire sky near the northern hemisphere displaying beautiful colours. But if the intensity of the solar storm was really high, the same solar storm could have a horrifying effect. History is filled with such examples, with the most renowned one being the Carrington Event.
Carrington Event: When a solar storm disrupted global telegraph system
Around a century and a half ago, on September 1 and 2, 1859, a massive solar storm struck the Earth and immediately caused a global failure of the telegraph system. The telegraph operators reported receiving electric shocks upon touching the instruments, telegraph paper spontaneously caught fire and some equipment started working without being connected. The event is now known as the Carrington Event when a severe storm spelled disaster for the telegraph system.
Why solar storms are terrifying
The Sun releases massive amounts of energy containing visible light, ultraviolet and infrared, gamma as well as electromagnetic radiation. This is a massive ejection of energy millions of kilometres out into space. These have been dubbed as CMEs. When this energy blast reaches Earth, it generates a geomagnetic storm. While the Earth’s atmosphere protects us from most of this blast, if the solar storm is big enough, it will penetrate all the way down to the ground level, which is what it did during the Carrington Event. The storm at that time devastated the telegraph network, but in those days, there were hardly any electrical infrastructure. By 2022, things have changed. There is a huge amount of tech in virtually every person’s life on Earth. Since most of our communication technology functions wirelessly (using satellites as a medium), any interference in the waves can cause glitches and even completely destroy these machines.
The Carrington event is the largest recorded solar storm event. But it is definitely not an isolated incident. There is the Miyake Event in 774 CE, where a solar storm even more severe struck the Earth. Its evidence can still be seen in the Arctic ice core. Various studies have shown that the Mikaye event was almost 12 times stronger than the Carrington event. What it shows is that what happened in 1859 was not an isolated event. We have just been extremely lucky in not experiencing a severe solar storm in the last 100 years and that has allowed us to build technologies at a fast pace and push hordes of satellites up in the sky.
But the Carrington event is a reminder. No matter how peaceful it has been, the Sun can any day throw us a solar storm so large that it can bring all our modern communication including cellular networks (mobile phones), internet, GPS systems, power grids and emergency services to a halt and send us right back to the stone age.