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Sun Is Getting More Active, Could Send Grid

May 22, 2023

The sun is waking up after almost a decade of relative calm, scientists say — and that could cause problems on Earth.

As more sunspots appear on the surface of our star during its active period, it may prompt more solar storms, creating bursts of electromagnetic energy that can affect everything from the power grid to GPS signals.

These so-called solar maximums occur roughly every 11 years, and they haven't been much of a problem in the past.

Scientists, however, fear that our reliance on electricity and interconnectivity could mean we're far more vulnerable to their effects this time around.

The sun is a big ball of plasma, heated at its center. The plasma, which is made of charged particles, boils toward the surface, cools down, and sinks back toward the core again.

That motion, called convection, is what creates strong magnetic fields at the poles and smaller, local magnetic fields at the surface of the sun.

Every 11 years or so, the sun becomes "convectively unstable," meaning its magnetic fields become so unstable that the magnetic north and south poles abruptly flip, throwing our star's polarity out of whack, said Mathew Owens, a professor of space physics at the University of Reading.

That instability causes havoc in the magnetic fields at the surface of the sun, which become much more active. That's when the solar maximum happens.

As the magnetic fields become more confused, bigger sun spots can appear on the surface of the sun.

"We're already seeing a lot more big sunspots," Owens said in late February. "There's a few this last week or so that were visible to the naked eye," he said, though he cautioned you shouldn't look straight to the sun which can damage your eyes, and only see these through strong filters.

He wasn't wrong. A huge "hole" the size of 30 Earths, pictured above, was spotted on the sun by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on Monday.

The sun is much more likely to throw energy our way during its maxima.

As the sun's local magnetic fields get more tangled and crash into each other, they can explode. Energy and charged particles from the sun are then ejected into space.

That energy can affect communication by messing with the ionosphere, a layer of charged particles in our upper atmosphere. That could cause problems for air travel.

"Space weather can ground flights," Owens said, adding that the Federal Aviation Administration "won't allow flights if they don't have both radio and satellite communications."

A 2023 study looking at flight records over 22 years found that planes were 21% more likely to be delayed by at least 30 minutes when the sun was very active.

The rays can change the magnetic fields in the ionosphere, which can affect GPS signals that have to pierce through that layer to reach Earth.

Radio signals sent from Earth also need to bounce off the ionosphere to get from one point to the other — that's less efficient in rough space weather.

Granted, radio signals are much less important to basic communications today. But several industries use radio signals to back up their other communications systems in case of failure.

As the geomagnetic storm messes with the ionosphere's magnetic charge, it creates currents in the ionosphere. Those currents in our upper atmosphere interact with the particles in the ground. The interaction between these particles creates strong electrical currents that can flood infrastructure on Earth.

This can trigger some bizarre phenomena. In one example, in 1972, US military pilots flying south of Haiphong harbor in North Vietnam saw two dozen sea mines explode in the water without any apparent cause. A 2018 study looking at space weather at the time concluded that the cause was a huge solar storm.

If the currents flood the electrical grid, they can blow up transformers.

One damaged transformer won't cause much of an issue. But a huge geomagnetic storm heading toward Earth — a storm so big it would "probably give us aurora down to the equators" — could cause several transformers to go at once, or overwhelm other transformers that could then blow up, knocking out the whole grid, Owens said.

In that case, Owens said, restarting the grid "could be a matter of weeks or even months."

"Then you lose refrigeration, you lose power to hospitals — things get quite serious quite rapidly," Owens added.

So far, we've been lucky. The worst solar storm we've seen happened in 1859. But we didn't rely as much on electricity back then as we do now; the only thing it knocked out were telegraph lines.

Still, a space-weather event in 1989 shows just how vulnerable we've become: A huge geomagnetic storm on March 13 cut power for 6 million people in Quebec for nine hours.

As these geomagnetic storms crash into the ionosphere, they can make auroras shine big and bright.

"The aurora oval that sits up over the northern and southern poles is a result of currents flowing in the Earth's atmosphere," Owens said. "And they're nearly always there, but they become very much stronger when we've got a geomagnetic storm going on."

We're starting to see some of the effects of these solar flares. The BBC reported that auroras were seen in the southern UK on Sunday night and that more were expected in the coming days.

The sun itself might be erupting in more beautiful formations. NASA spotted a rare polar vortex this month.

The sun also lets off radiation in the form of solar energetic particles that can be dangerous to astronauts.

Humans on Earth are shielded from that radiation, as most of it bounces off the ionosphere and the rest is absorbed by the atmosphere. Even the International Space Station is still under the protection of the ionosphere.

But if the radiation hits an astronaut in outer space, it can be very dangerous, Owens said.

"If you are trying to send a crew to the moon or Mars, you really need to worry about these things, because that is a serious, potentially fatal radiation dose," Owens said.

So far, astronauts have been lucky. Two Apollo crewed missions narrowly escaped a huge solar storm in August 1972: Apollo 16 had landed back on Earth in April, while Apollo 17 launched in December.

"They missed it purely by chance, and it could have been fatal for the astronauts at the time," Owens said.

But as SpaceX and NASA aim to ramp up missions in the coming years, they'll need to prepare for solar storms — the issue is that there's no good way to shield astronauts in space, Owens said.

Owens said that if the 1859 solar storm were to happen today, we'd be "far more susceptible."

With each decade, we become more dependent on electrical infrastructure, he said. And the latest solar cycle, which peaked around 2010, was particularly quiet and may have lulled us into a false sense of security.

"It was the smallest we'd had for about a hundred years," Owens said, adding, "The danger of going from a small cycle to a slightly bigger one is that you then realize where all the vulnerabilities are."

Still, we're not in immediate danger. Physicists predict that this cycle will not be the biggest we've ever seen, and we're getting better at spotting storms to be able to prepare for them.

Scientists are also learning more and more about our sun. NASA's Parker Solar Probe, for instance, is heading for the sun and is likely to provide unprecedented images and exciting new data in December.

Correction March 24, 2023 — An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the particles coming from the sun. They were wrongly described as radioactive, when in fact the particles themselves are the radiation given off by the sun.

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Correction March 24, 2023 —