The geomagnetic storms they stoke can induce strong currents in national power grids that literally melt the expensive transformers that form the cornerstones of the system.
The failure of a large part of India’s fragile power grid this week was not related to geomagnetic storms but it does give a taste of the chaos that can ensue. Trapped miners, stranded trains and hospitals plunged into darkness, and this is a country where up to 40 percent of the population is not connected to the national grid.
Scientists say satellites can also be damaged or destroyed, as charged particles rip through them at hundreds of miles per second. It’s an issue the satellite industry is not keen to talk openly about.
“A few will still publicly deny that there is a problem,” said Hapgood, blaming the fear that being first to admit the problem could put a company at a commercial disadvantage.
“We have a way to go before we reach the point where the market accepts that this is a universal problem and gives the advantage to the guys who make a virtue of their ability to deal with space weather.”
Radio communications with jetliners can also be knocked out as the solar storm messes with the ionosphere, the region of the earth’s upper atmosphere through which long-range radio waves travel.
When there is a threat, airlines re-route planes to lower latitudes where they are less exposed. It’s not quite routine but it isn’t that rare either, and it adds to the fuel bill.
CHEER UP, IT MIGHT NEVER HAPPEN
It’s a threat that is ‘low frequency, high severity’ in insurance industry jargon, which governments have only recently started taking seriously.