Intensive period of solar activity expected: What are its consequences for Earth?

March 2, 2023  13:32

The Sun has been relatively "quiet" for the past decade, but now it's starting an intensive period of activity, which scientists say could cause some problems on Earth.

Judging by the frequency and intensity of solar flares, experts expect that the new intensive period of solar activity could be more intensive than the previous one, causing power and communication outages on Earth, and even harming satellites and spacecraft crews.

Mathew Owens, a professor of space physics at the University of Reading, told Business Insider in an interview that the Sun becomes "convectively unstable" every 11 years, and its magnetic fields become so unstable that the North and South Poles suddenly switch places. It is at this time that the peak of solar activity is observed.

In the current cycle, the maximum activity of the Sun is expected in late 2024 or early 2025; by then, both the frequency of flares and the number of Sunspots will have reached their maximum.

Due to changes in the intensity of magnetic fields, both the frequency and intensity of solar flares increase. They may be accompanied by plasma discharges—coronal mass discharges. These processes will reach the peak of their activity in about a year and a half, and according to scientists, they will have real consequences for people living on Earth, as well as for astronauts.

If the solar flare is directed towards the Earth, the visible light emitted from it is expected to reach our planet in 8.5 minutes. However, it will take several dozen minutes for the charged particle streams to reach our planet, and about three days—for the plasma clouds.

What problems can occur?

Geomagnetic storms, hitting the Earth's ionosphere, will make the auroras brighter and more attractive. But they can also disrupt high-frequency radio communications and power supplies—knocking out power plant transformers.

There are also risks associated with radiation. Humans on Earth are not well protected from radioactive radiation from solar particles because most of this radiation is reflected from the ionosphere and the rest is absorbed by the atmosphere. The International Space Station is also under the protection of the ionosphere. However, radioactive radiation from the Sun can be very dangerous for astronauts in open space; deprived of the protection of the Earth's ionosphere and atmosphere, they can receive a potentially lethal dose of radiation.

As Matthew Owens points out, astronauts have been lucky so far. In August 1972, two Apollo missions somehow survived a solar storm. Apollo 16 returned to Earth in April, and Apollo 17 launched in December.

However, SpaceX and NASA plan to increase the number of space missions with astronauts in the coming years, and they need to properly prepare for solar storms. The problem, according to Owens, is that there is currently no effective way to protect astronauts in space from solar radiation.

According to the expert, geomagnetic storms can lead to some unexpected consequences on Earth as well. For example, in 1972, American military pilots flying south of Hai Phong port in North Vietnam saw two dozen sea mines explode in the water for no apparent reason.

A 2018 study, which aimed to study the space weather of those years, came to the conclusion that the explosions were caused by a powerful solar storm.

Power transformers can also fail and even explode under the influence of magnetic storms. And if one damaged transformer doesn't cause much trouble, the failure of the entire network can lead to serious problems. For example, hospitals can go without electricity, with all the problems that come with that.

According to Owens, the strongest solar storm ever recorded occurred in 1859. But then humanity was not as dependent on electricity as it is now. At that time, the solar storm knocked out the telegraph lines.

And on March 13, 1989, a total of 6 million people in Canada’s Quebec province were deprived of electricity for 9 hours due to a powerful geomagnetic storm—albeit it was weaker than the one that occurred in 1859.

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