What to expect when a solar storm hits the Earth

See that? That gigantic solar explosion just barely missed the Earth. You probably didn't need to head to your nearest bomb shelter (you do know where your nearest bomb shelter is, right?), but here's some of the effects that solar storms can have on our planet.

Despite how stupendously large that solar explosion looked, it only actually registered as a class M2.5, which is really not that bad. The flare also wasn't pointing directly at us, meaning that Earth avoided the worst of it. In general, from something like this we can expect some minor geomagnetic storm conditions along with heightened radiation storm levels, which means:

  • Weak power grid fluctuations that you probably won't notice
  • Minor impacts on satellite operations
  • High frequency radio transmissions going over the pole may get lost
  • Slightly increased radiation exposure for high-flying aircraft at high latitudes
  • Birds and other migratory animals may get confused about where they should be going
  • Auroras visible in northern Michigan and Maine

That last thing is really a piece of good news for those of you lucky enough to live in the Northern part of the country, since auroras are quite possibly some of the most spectacular natural phenomenon on the planet and if you can, you should definitely go outside and check it out.

Storms of this magnitude are relatively common occurrences, but they can get much, much worse. Every 11 years or so the sun completes one full cycle of solar activity, from relatively passive to highly active, and there's a small probability in each cycle that we'll get whacked with something very, very serious. Here's what I mean by very serious, if we were to get hit with a storm that was categorized as "extreme:"

  • Electrical grid collapse and blackouts, physical damage to electrical transformers
  • High frequency radio communication impossible for several days
  • Significant radiation risk for astronauts on EVA, increased risk for high-altitude aircraft
  • Satellites may be rendered useless, physical damage to solar panels
  • GPS outage for several hours
  • Auroras visible in Florida and southern Texas

Now, there's no need to freak out, since events like this tend to happen happen less frequently than once per solar cycle (that's once every 11 years). But that also means that it's likely to happen a bunch of times over the next few decades, and you'll almost certainly notice when it does.

With that happy thought in mind, here's another view of the recent flare:

Okay, the sun officially scares me now.

NOAA, via io9

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