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

January 29, 2016
Solar Storms

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!

About This Blog

Are you a weather watcher? Welcome to “Weather Whispers” by James Garriss and until recently, Evelyn Browning Garriss. With expertise and humor, this column covers everything weather—from weather forecasts to WHY extreme weather happens to ways that weather affects your life from farming to your grocery bill. Enjoy weather facts, folklore, and fun!

With heavy hearts, we share the news that historical climatologist and immensely entertaining Almanac contributor Evelyn Browning Garriss passed away in late June 2017. Evelyn shared her lifetime of weather knowledge with Almanac editors and readers, explaining weather phenomena in conversation and expounding on topics in articles for the print edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well as in these articles. We were honored to know and work with her as her time allowed, which is to say when she was not giving lectures to, writing articles for, and consulting with scientists, academia, investors, and government agencies around the world. She will be greatly missed by the Almanac staff and readers.