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Sun Forecasts: Solar Flares, Geomagnetic Storms, and Radio Black-Outs

When we look at forecasts to plan the days ahead or consider continuity and emergency management arrangements not all of us think of space weather as something to be prepared for.  

Over the last decade America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the UK’s Met Office, amongst others, have developed increasingly sophisticated forecasting and monitoring of the sun’s activity in response to our increased exposure to space weather.  

The phenomenon of ‘space weather’ is generated by solar activity. It is a natural phenomenon which scientists are constantly learning about.  These phenomena produce the beautiful Northern Lights (aurora) which tend to be restricted to the uppermost areas of the poles.  However, in 1859 much of the world experienced a global aurora and it was reported that people were able to read newspapers in the middle of the night as the ‘Carrington Event’ aurora lit up the skies. We haven’t experienced anything like that since.

Like weather on earth, space weather has peaks of activity which are part of a naturally occurring cycle. For solar activity this is roughly every 11 years as the magnetic field of the sun flips. We are currently in a peak period of activity for the sun. Over the last couple of days there has been a cluster of activity with increasingly strong activity with increasingly massive explosions of light, energy, and high-speed particles emitted from the sun.

Space weather events mainly result from emissions from the Sun. A continual stream of charged particles originates from the Sun and dispersed in space. This stream can interact with the magnetic fields of planets. Earth is one such planet. If the stream is significant enough, due to a particularly turbulent solar wind, its magnetic field may result in changes in Earth's magnetic field. The most significant space weather events happen when a sudden burst electromagnetic radiation emanates from the Sun. this is known as a solar flare, and the impact of such an event is a loss of Earth's ability to reflect long-range radio waves, leading to what is a "Radio Blackout" event.

The 10 astronauts currently in space, 7 of whom are the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) and 3 on the Tiangong Space Station (Shenzhou 17 mission), needed to shield from the high levels of radiation emitted by the sun during these events in specially designed chambers.

But what does this mean for us on earth? With increasing amounts of earth-dependent infrastructure in space our exposure to earthbound space weather phenomenon can increasingly impact life. If the solar activity is not earthbound then the impact is limited. Likewise, if earth-bound, the impact will favour the side of the earth is facing the sun. And like terrestrial weather, the prevailing conditions, like the direction of solar winds, are important.

While there is ample research on the negative impacts of extreme space weather on modern technological infrastructure, we do not fully understand the full gamut of potential damage to society, including in the economic, policy and psychological domains. This multi-disciplinary challenge requires joint efforts as the world becomes more dependent on technology each passing day. Potential power outages may carry disastrous ramifications. To date, the worst space weather event occurred on 13 March 1989. That resulted in six million people without electricity in the Quebec province of Canada for nine hours.

Today, the potential damage to society is significantly more dramatic, as a result of our ever-growing dependency on technology. As technology advances, the number of systems vulnerable to space weather events increases.

On 21 and 22 February 2024 following three particularly strong solar flares flights from London to New York, took longer as airlines rerouted flights to prevent passengers and their staff from being exposed to increased levels of radiation, and industries reliant on GPS services noticed disruption and paused activities.

Coinciding with those 3 space weather events, Downdetector, a real-time service monitoring platform, saw satellite and telecommunications services significantly disrupted particularly across the USA which was facing the sun and has a particularly dense network of infrastructure which makes it more vulnerable to exposure. During the space weather events a wide range of services noted interruption including Apple, AT&T, YouTube, LinkedIn, Google, Starlink, X, Amazon, Web Services (AWS), Facebook, and Microsoft Teams services.

We are already very dependent on space infrastructure for everyday life and the recent announcement that energy has, for the first time, been generated from solar power in space and beamed to earth, means in future our dependence on space infrastructure could significantly increase. The impacts of space weather events may be far greater unless we plan for and are better prepared for these phenomena.

We can mitigate a failure of technological infrastructure, both in space and on Earth, through effective public awareness, creating a more robust and less vulnerable infrastructure, and enhancing forecasting capabilities for extreme space weather events. Comprehensive prevention and planning is increasingly important as our dependency on technology continues to increase, we may find ourselves in a more vulnerable society, increasingly prone to harmful effects of extreme space weather events.


Sarah Schubert, Chair, ICPEM

Liran Renert, Vice-Chair, ICPEM


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