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The sky is not falling, but it is glowing

13 May 2024

Did you get to see some aurora over the weekend?

If not then don't be too upset, those in the know suggest that we may see more in the way of significant solar activity over the next 12 months before the current cycle begins to wane.

Many of the images being shared on social media are stunning and such natural phenomena are a reminder that, global warming excepted, we're still largely just spectators on this lump of rock that's whizzing through the blackness of space.

It's also somewhat sobering to think that much of our communications and energy infrastructure is at the mercy of the type of solar activity we've witnessed over the past couple of days.

Fortunately the disruption caused by the weekend's flares has been very minor.

The world's power grids seem to have been largely unaffected and the mitigations built into modern satellites appear to have prevented any damage up there either.

However, we do need to remember that although this was a G5 event (the highest on the scale), it was "only just" strong enough to gain that classification and was still way short of a Carrington Event magnitude.

If/when we do end up in the firing line of some more significant CMEs then the outcome could be altogether different so it would make sense to take some steps to mitigate the effects that might produce.

Exactly what might those effects be and what strategies could we (the great unwashed) have for better coping with the fallout?

The first, and perhaps most obvious impact might be to the electricity grid.

Huge surge currents produced by the massive swings in magnetic flux that all that current in the magnetosphere and ionosphere produces may well produce burnt out transformers and damaged switching gear that knocks our good old 230V mains offline for some time. The obvious fall-back would be a half-decent petrol or diesel-powered generator that could, given enough fuel, keep essential elements of a home working for days, if not weeks.

Another option would be some solar panels, a battery and inverter -- although that's likely quite a bit more expensive than a budget-spec $500 generator.

Next up would be the disruption to communications.

Although the frequencies used by modern cellular services won't be directly affected by a major solar storm, any failure of the power grid will have a flow-on effect and since most cell-towers rely on GPS signals for synchronisation, the loss of that service could also have some bearing on the performance of such services, even if power stays up.

As for things like fibre broadband you'll be pleased to hear that the switch from overhead copper lines to underground fibre will have increased resilience enormously. However, as with cellular stuff, a lack of mains power could see fibre broadband go dark if the outage was a protracted one.

Just about the only mitigation for loss of phone and broadband services would be the use of mobile radios (walkie-talkies) and informal RF-based data networks such as those being built by the growing number of Meshtastic enthusiasts popping up around the world.

What about health effects? Can a solar flare cause injury?

Fortuantely the answer to that is a resounding "no" -- at least not in the short term.

However, scientists do point out that large flares and the CMEs that accompany them can strip away part of the Earth's protective ozone layer and this can result in measurably higher levels of ultraviolet radiation reaching the surface of the planet. Such increases heighten the risk of skin cancers so I guess the mitigation for this would be to use some extra sunscreen on sunny days and perhaps remember that hat, even if the sun doesn't feel too hot.

To be honest, I was surprised that tabloid publications such as the Daily Mail didn't re-run the countless fearmongering hysteria-based stories they've spat out in the past whenever even a minor flare was reported. Fortunately, this time, they opted to fill their pages with awe-inspiring vistas of night skies glowing with a rainbow-like spectrum of colour.

Sometimes, even when wars are waging, hate is the new religion and things look their darkest, the universe sends us little reminders that there is still beauty and joy all around us -- if only we take a moment to look.

Carpe Diem folks!

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