Solar shock wave hits earth – what are the potential hazards?

Earth is experiencing what's called a severe-level geomagnetic solar storm, the second to the highest level, that sends out huge spikes of energy and radiation from the sun. The more we rely on high-tech communications and services, the more vulnerable we are to the cycles of our star, 93 million miles away.

Solar storms are important as this and next year will be the peak activity of the 11-year solar cycle. Hazards to earthlings can come when the solar shock waves hit Earth’s electrically charged layer.

Astronomical experts Big Quock and Andrew Fraknoi say that layer protects the planet, the people and technology from solar and cosmic radiation. "Way back in 1989, there was a major power outage that affected the northeast and that was due to the effect of a solar storm," said Quock.

Skylab, America's first space station, was downed by a 1979 solar storm. "That caused the atmosphere to expand a little bit and that increased drag on Skylab and that's what brought it out of orbit," said Quock.

File: A solar flare erupting on March 3, 2023. The image shows a subset of extreme ultraviolet light that highlights the extremely hot material in flares, and which is colorized in orange. (Solar Dynamics Observatory / NASA)

Fast-forward to solar storms today. When there's a solar storm occurring, NASA tells astronauts on board the space station to shelter in place. "They can play havoc with the electrical grid and they can also have a serious effect on the GPS satellites that we all rely on," said Fraknoi. "It can also affect the geostationary satellites that when rely on so much for weather satellite imagery or video communications," said Quock.

As the solar shock wave heats the atmosphere, as happened with Skylab, atmospheric expansion can, and do, drag low earth orbiting satellites out of orbit. SpaceX had this issue occur when they sent up a whole batch of Starlink satellites and solar activity actually knocked out a whole bunch of them," said Quock.

Everything from certain undersea cables to air-to-ground and ship-to-shore communications as well as military detection and early warning systems can be degraded. Even migratory birds and bees, that rely on Earth's magnetic fields to navigate, can be affected." Certain species do make use of the earth's magnetic field," said Quock.

So far we've had no bad effects, but we still have two years to go.


Severe geomagnetic storm could create Northern Lights displays in southern US on Sunday, Monday

A severe geomagnetic storm is underway, which could create auroras as far south as Alabama and Northern California.