Humans might think of space as a dark emptiness where there is no air, and where nothing happens. But, the fact is, nothing could be farther from the truth. In space there are constant violent transfers of matter and energy, and those transfers, particularly from the sun; solar storms; have a significant impact on the earth.
The storms in space can cause damage to equipment over vast areas of the earth. Solar storms can cause geomagnetically induced currents, which can enter electrical transformers through ground connections, causing them to become overheated and overloaded. Transformer failures can be costly. A large electric transformer costs about $10 million, and in addition to the cost of replacing blown transformers, the cost to utility companies to purchase replacement power from other utilities when a transformer fails can be more than $400,000 per day. The 1989 blackout that impacted the entire northeastern United States caused some $6 billion in damage and lost wages.
Solar storms also affect the operation of satellites, which have become a pervasive part of our economy and society. There are currently more than 936 commercial satellites in space, forming an integral part of earth’s communications and geo-location system. Accounting for $225 billion in annual revenue for the telecommunications industry alone, they would cost over $200 billion to replace. Particles from solar flares cause physical damage to the silicon-based solar cells of satellites, degrading them over time. Solar storms also heat the upper atmosphere, creating drag which can cause satellite orbits to degrade over time, and precipitate atmospheric re-entry unless expensive booster firing is scheduled to keep the satellite in orbit. Solar weather damage causes an estimated $4 billion in satellite losses each year.
Airline travel is promoted as safe, but solar storms pose health risks to passengers in this day of high altitude jets, particularly those flying the polar route. While the exposure to solar radiation is generally considered within safety limits, airlines often reroute flights during solar events.
Scientists predict that solar flare activity will peak in 2013 or 2014, and that it could cause significant disruptions to global telecommunications systems. The last major solar storm was in 1859, and it shorted out telegraph wires and caused large fires in North America. The auroras over the North Pole during that event were bright enough to read by. Because electrical and communications systems are so much more developed now, another storm of the magnitude of the 1859 storm could have a devastating impact, causing as much as $2 trillion in damage and create chaos worldwide.
A major solar storm could impact on every aspect of life on earth. Electrical grids would fail, plunging vast areas into darkness, halting industrial activity, and making normal commerce impossible. Worldwide telecommunications systems would cease to function, and air traffic control networks would fail. The sun might be 93 million miles away, but activity in its core and on its surface will be felt here on earth.