While the Sun may appear stable, it is in fact perpetually changing in a cycle that repeats every eleven years. On the surface, sunspots are constantly appearing and vanishing, with flares and large ejections of mass (coronal mass ejections) occurring in time-spans of minutes to hours.
These solar flares are large explosions in the Sun’s atmosphere and are responsible for the coronal mass ejections (CME), which are massive bursts of solar wind. Energy is continuously blowing out from the Sun in the form of this solar wind, which is made up of electrified particles and constitutes the extended atmosphere of the Sun.
Solar storms occur following any rapid changes on the Sun. An abrupt change creates intense flares and coronal mass ejections which set off brief, but highly powerful, solar storms out into space. In the event that a solar storm is directed towards the Earth, significant damage can result following impact.
The surface of the Earth is surrounded and protected by a magnetic field: the magnetosphere, which absorbs much of the impact of a solar storm. However, this sets off a magnetic storm due to the resulting fluctuations in the magnetosphere of the Earth. Documented effects of such magnetic storms include disabled satellites, burned out transformers and shut down power grids.
The worst recorded solar storm occurred around 150 years ago, on September 2, 1859. It overwhelmed the Earth’s magnetic field defenses as it slammed into the Earth’s atmosphere and wreaked havoc on the ground. Just before dawn, the skies all over the Earth were colored in red, green and purple auroras, even near tropical latitudes.
More disconcerting were the fires that that broke out, as the enhanced electric current flowing through telegraphic wires set ablaze recording tapes and telegraphic papers. A storm of that magnitude in today’s age would prove to be far more devastating, since our electrical and communication infrastructure has greatly developed since then over these 150 years.
Indeed, estimates of potential damage for such an event run as high as 2 trillion dollars, in what could turn out to be a “global Katrina”. There have been warnings from the scientific community of a such a solar storm around 2013; one which could cause extensive blackouts and disrupt satellite communications.
This would paralyze the Earth and bring much of normal life to an abrupt halt for hours, days, or even months. The widespread effects and financial fallout of such a disaster are hard to control and mitigate, given how deeply technology has permeated the basics of people’s daily lives.