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Friday the 13th and the Not-So-Scary Space Storms

June 14, 2014

Credit: NASA
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The space storms are coming! The space storms are coming! Call out Paul Revere! Hide the women and children! Aaaaaaargh!

Flare 1 and 2, coming at you! Sources: NASA/SDO/Goddard

Wait a minute . . . the space storm came and went and you didn’t notice? Many experts did a lot of work to prepare for solar storms. The protections worked. The good news is that there was no bad news.

Solar storms really do pose a threat. The energy from them can interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, producing what is called a geomagnetic storm. Powerful storms can create geomagnetic currents that interrupt electrical power grids and throw off magnetic compasses. They can damage satellites that we depend on for telecommunications and GPS. It’s a real threat and in the past, solar storms caused huge blackouts. Earth’s atmosphere offers some protection, but it doesn’t protect everything.

Because of this, scientists developed tactics and systems to respond to the danger. Satellites can change orbit and electrical utilities can change power flows. Ever since the giant Hydro Quebec blackout in 1989, experts have tried to prepare for solar storms. Satellites observing the sun issue warnings and experts try to take the proper steps.

All the systems that could be hurt by solar stormsand weren’t. Source: NASA

On June 11, there were 3 huge solar flares. They were X-class, 10,000 times as powerful as normal background flares from the sun. They could have hit the Earth on Friday the 13th. The space storm satellites issued their usual warnings and the media picked them up. The headlines were irresistible!

All that happened is that each of the first two flares caused an hour-long radio blackout in some parts of the Earth. The third flare missed.

The Earth’s atmosphere cushioned the blow. Man-made protections worked. The experts kept us safe—and you were free to enjoy a pleasant Father’s Day. Congratulations!

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Evelyn Browning Garriss, historical climatologist, is a longtime writer for The Old Farmer's Almanac. She is also editor of The Browning World Climate Bulletin and has advised farmers, businesses, and investors worldwide on upcoming climate events and their economic and social impact for the past 21 years.

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