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Feb 25, 2013 | 11:30 GMT

Solar Storms and Technology: The Likelihood of Disruptions

Photo by NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) via Getty Images
Summary

The sun can put on quite a show, with violent storms releasing large amounts of electromagnetic energy into the solar system. With increased reliance on satellite-based communication, the vulnerability to disruption from solar storms and flares increases. Because the sun is currently in a period of relatively high activity, expected to peak in 2013, solar storm warnings will likely be more frequent in the coming year. However, despite the increasing frequency of bursts of electromagnetic energy from the sun, the possibility of a direct hit by a truly debilitating storm is still small, and the possibility of any other kind of disruptive electromagnetic pulse is even smaller.

If energy from solar storms comes into contact with Earth's magnetic field, it can increase radiation levels and disturb the ionosphere. These effects have the ability to disrupt satellite operations, radio transmissions, GPS and cellular communications, and damage electrical equipment on the ground. For example, electromagnetic energy from a solar storm in 1989 caused widespread power outages throughout Quebec.

On Feb. 19, a very large sunspot appeared and grew to six times the size of Earth within 48 hours. The spot remains unstable and could result in solar storms. These storms, which release the electromagnetic energy that could eventually come into contact with Earth, are not all of the same intensity. Traditionally, solar flares — a type of solar storm — are ranked: the strongest flares are labeled X, the weakest flares are labeled C, and those in the middle are labeled M. As technology has become more incorporated into daily life, and satellites have transitioned into a more commercial role, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has developed a scale that allows the general public to better understand the impacts of these storms. A numbering system of 1-5 indicates severity, with 5 being the most severe, while letters indicate how the storm is interacting with Earth and its surrounding magnetic field. G indicates a geomagnetic storm and corresponding disturbance in Earth's magnetic field, which can cause problems with electrical grids on the ground. S indicates an increase in radiation levels, and R refers to radio blackouts that result from disturbances in the ionosphere, often caused by solar flares. 

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitor space weather and are somewhat capable of predicting solar storms. Space weather forecasts, while still subject to some level of uncertainty, have improved greatly in recent years, allowing scientists to predict the arrival times of storms fairly accurately. The forecast through Feb. 24 gave a 40 percent chance for an M flare and a 10 percent chance for an X flare. The probability of an R3 or higher blackout, which could cause radio outages for an hour or more on the sun side of Earth, was 5 percent or less through Feb. 24. The possibility of a severe geomagnetic storm was 1 percent. NASA's predictions, put in layman's terms, were for Feb. 22 and Feb. 23 to be "quiet to unsettled" with Feb. 24 "quiet." Such forecasts could become more common in the coming year.

Chart - Sunspot Cycle

Activity on the sun is not constant. Sunspot occurrences have increased since 2010, and the sun currently is near its maximum point in the 11-year cycle. Multiple large storms were reported in 2012, but at worst they led to minor disruptions — primarily in air travel — but no major disturbances. However, ongoing levels of increased activity could make sporadic communications interruptions more likely. An increase in activity could also bring the possibility of disruption to electrical grids and satellite activity to the forefront of the mainstream media.

The threat of electromagnetic pulses is often brought up in relation to an act of terrorism. However, Stratfor has long held the position that this risk is extremely small. Space is the most likely source of an electromagnetic disturbance. 

Satellites are able to withstand most solar storms, although some minor problems with computer subsystems are possible. An extremely severe electromagnetic storm, sometimes referred to as a 100-year storm, would have the ability to disrupt the electrical grid on the ground. There is some debate within the United States about whether the cost of completely hardening the electrical grid against such a storm is justified. An EMP Commission report released in 2008 concluded that the United States' electrical grid was vulnerable to electromagnetic energy, and the U.S. Department of Defense has estimated that retrofitting all military electrical equipment could cost as much as 10 percent of the initial cost. However, the electrical grid's vulnerability means that if a severe solar storm hit, widespread power outages could result.

However, the likelihood of a solar storm being both strong enough and correctly positioned to do this is very small. Storms this severe only appear a few times during the sun's 11-year cycle. Still, smaller communications disruptions are possible, especially since the world is becoming more and more dependent on technology. In short, communications and navigational systems are the most likely casualties of this year's increased solar activity.

This is not to belittle the possible detriment of communications disruptions. Equipment used to direct strategic military activity, among other things, could be affected. Disruptions could also have short-term political and economic consequences for affected nations, given the unknown effects of even a minor disturbance in global communications. Much of modern life revolves around cellular and positioning technology. A strong solar storm could create inconveniences, but a doomsday situation — especially the use of an electromagnetic pulse in a terrorist attack — is extremely unlikely.

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