Solar Winds
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Rising Solar Winds

Geomagnetic Storm Surge

Deep in the heart of our solar system, just below the surface of the sun, a plasma cloud is erupting, sending a blast of protons and electrons hurtling into space at a million miles per hour or faster. The process, known as a coronal mass ejection, is a regular event, but its daily frequency waxes and wanes over an 11-year cycle. We may see one or two ejections a week when the action is slow, but these plasma clouds can blast spaceward several times a day when it is most active. The fast-moving plasma cloud creates a solar wind, and if it hits Earth, the resulting geomagnetic storm can kick you off the internet.

A solar storm knocked out the Hydro-Québec power grid in 1989, leaving six million people without power. All our modern technological devices using electricity are at risk, from satellites to power grids and communications networks. Unfortunately, we are starting a new 11-year cycle and expect to see increasing coronal mass ejection activity with a peak in 2025.

Because coronal mass ejections occur all across the sun’s surface, each one is like a cannon firing a plasma cloud in a specific direction. Most of them are not targeted at Earth. When one does fire towards Earth, the plasma cloud takes several days to cross the 93 million mile gap between Earth and the sun before the resulting solar wind creates a geomagnetic storm.

As a storm strikes Earth, the force of the charged particles in the plasma cloud compresses the daylight side of Earth’s magnetic field and stretches out the night side. Electric fields are disrupted, and beautiful displays of the aurora borealis (northern lights) extend south towards the mid-latitudes.

Storm Surge

Most people living in coastal areas are familiar with storm surges and king tides. Storm surges push ocean waters inland, driven by winds and low pressure, whereas king tides create flooding when the gravitational forces of the sun and moon align to amplify high tide effects. Solar winds can also create abnormal conditions where the effects of a geomagnetic storm are amplified.

The primary control on the size and strength of a solar storm is the force behind the initial coronal mass ejection. Larger eruptions not only create more intense plasma clouds but eject them at higher velocities. A small ejection followed by a larger one from the same location creates two storms streaking across space along the same pathway, presenting a dangerous situation for any unsuspecting planet in their path (think Earth).

The larger plasma cloud, originating from a more forceful ejection, travels faster than the initial smaller cloud. At some point, the larger, faster storm catches up with the slower one and cannibalizes it, forming a superstorm. When this powerful storm surge slams into Earth, the damage it causes will be greater than either of the two individual storms could generate.

Program coordinator at the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, Bill Murtagh, described the superstorm scenario by saying, “We have determined for all practical purposes that our worst-case scenario for the extreme geomagnetic storm event scenario will indeed be this.

It Can Be Bad — The Carrington Event

The year was 1859 when amateur astronomer Richard Carrington observed unusually strong solar flares associated with a major coronal mass ejection event. About eighteen hours later, spanning the 1st and 2nd of September, Earth experienced the largest geomagnetic storm on record.

The northern lights were visible from near the equator, and telegraph systems worldwide experienced significant damage; fires broke out when telegraph paper ignited, and some operators received electric shocks.

Our reliance on electrical systems has grown unimaginably since the Carrington Event. Dependence on electricity controls all aspects of our daily lives in most developed and developing nations. Loss of electrical power in all systems, both large and small, would throw us back into an age long past. While this transformation would be temporary, the event would still be catastrophic in a world where 24–7 communication and information processing is the backbone of our society.

Without social media access, large populations of shallow thinkers may fall into despair and depression from their lack of constant social affirmation. How will they move forward when no one is there to tell them what to think? They will be hapless victims of the solar storm surge, drowning in their own social isolation and unable to muster enough critical thought to make it through the day.

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What are coronal mass ejections? (By Christopher Crockett; EarthSky)

‘Cannibal’ solar storms are heading towards the Earth — and could take down satellites, power lines, and the internet (by Adam Smith; Independent)

Carrington Event (Source: Wikipedia)

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.