The effects of space weather events and their effects on modern technologies are well understood and well documented.

This does not make them any less important because the broader impact on our socioeconomic infrastructure is less understood.

Our society and its dependence upon modern technologies is constantly evolving and becoming more complex and interdependent. Though we have experience and have learned from many episodes of space weather over the years we have yet to see the impact of major space weather events upon our current technological society.

effects of space weather events

The current state of technology in our society has evolved greatly since the last solar maximum. The next solar maximum is several years away and the effects of space weather will become more apparent as activity begins to increase. At the same time our advancing society will increase our vulnerability to space weather.

The current solar cycle is not expected to be as intense as recent ones in the past but this does not mean we can afford be complacent. In fact, the largest space weather event in modern times (perhaps in the last 5000 years) occurred in September 1859 during a low activity period of a relatively small solar cycle. The good news is that the most severe effects of space weather can be mitigated with proper precautions and preparations.

Solar flares, though visually dramatic and first to effect us (light takes 8 minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth), have a few limited effects on radio based systems. Solar flares produce a 10-20 minute change to the atmosphere that absorbs high frequency (HF) radio waves producing an HF radio blackout on the Sun facing side of the Earth. Also, this change to the atmosphere slows down GPS signals producing location errors of many meters in GPS receivers.

Solar flares and CMEs can create bursts of radio waves aptly called solar radio bursts. These intense bursts of radio can potentially disrupt wireless and short-range devices so they are now of growing concern as the use of this technology increases (e.g. Wifi).

The effects of space weather are of huge concern to power and satellite companies, the airline and transportation industries as well as oil and gas pipeline and survey/drilling companies. Even the financial sector is becoming aware of space weather’s impact. The awareness of these industries to space weather varies with the satellite and power industries most aware because of their previous exposure to its effects.

Astronomer Sten Odenwald explains more about solar storms

Examples and Cost of Major Space Weather Events

September 1859

Aurora bright enough to read by seen extremely far south (Cuba). Telegraph systems ran without being powered. Some caught on far and operators were electrocuted. Considered to be the largest solar storm on record (estimates for an event of this magnitude today are up to $2 trillion).

May 1921

Entire New York Central Rail switching system knocked out. Telegraph and telephone disruptions worldwide.

March 1989

Huge magnetic storm caused the Quebec power grid to fail in 90 seconds leaving millions without power for up to 9 hours (total cost not just to the Quebec power grid estimated at over $2 billion).

October/November 2003

Major loss of GPS accuracy with errors over 50 meters, transformer failures in South Africa, major HF radio blackouts, 30 satellite anomalies including one satellite loss (many billions of $s).

GRAPHIC CREDIT: Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies

VIDEO CREDIT: William Bensen and NASA-Goddard astronomer, Sten Odenwald.