A violent storm on the Sun could cripple communications on Earth and cause huge economic damage, scientists have warned. Why are solar storms such a threat?
In 1972, dozens of sea mines off the coast of Vietnam mysteriously exploded.
It was recently confirmed the cause was solar storms, which can significantly disrupt the Earth’s magnetic field.
Today, the effects of a similar event could be much more serious – disrupting the technology we rely on for everything from satellites to power grids. The cost to the UK economy alone of an unexpected event has been estimated at £16bn.
There are good reasons why we are vulnerable to events taking place millions of miles from Earth.
What causes an extreme solar event?
The Sun is a star, a seething mass of electrified hydrogen. As this fluid moves around, it builds up energy within its complex magnetic field.
This magnetic energy is released through intense flashes of light known as solar flares and through vast eruptions of material and magnetic fields known as coronal mass ejections or solar storms.
While flares can disrupt radio communication on Earth, solar storms pose the greatest threat.
Each storm contains the energy equivalent to 100,000 times the world’s entire nuclear arsenal, although this is spread throughout an enormous volume in space.