Scientist warns more powerful solar eruptions could hit Earth in 2025 – and cause the


While Earth mostly succeeded in weathering last weekend’s strong solar storm, experts have warned more powerful eruptions could continue to strike until 2025.

A Harvard astrophysicist told DailyMail.com that the sun has not yet reached its ‘solar maximum,’ the most energetic point of the recurring, 11-year solar cycle in which greater turbulence raises the sun’s total energy output.

That ‘maximum’ will finally come in the heat of the summer next year: July 2025.

‘We could easily get much bigger storms over the next year or two,’ Dr. Jonathan McDowell told DailyMail.com.

The ‘extreme (G5) geomagnetic conditions‘ of last weekend’s solar storm was produced by a disturbance on the sun’s surface that was larger than the solar disturbance that produced the infamous 1859 Carrington event.

The Carrington solar storm set telegraph wires on fire, cut communications worldwide, and even disrupted ships’ compasses — and space weather experts anticipate that a direct hit from the bigger solar storms coming soon could be worse.

While Earth succeeded in weathering last weekend's historic solar storm, experts warn the risk of more powerful eruptions will keep increasing until July 2025. 'We could easily get much bigger storms over the next year or two,' astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told DailyMail.com

While Earth succeeded in weathering last weekend’s historic solar storm, experts warn the risk of more powerful eruptions will keep increasing until July 2025. ‘We could easily get much bigger storms over the next year or two,’ astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told DailyMail.com

‘It’s definitely a scary time for satellite operators,’ Dr. McDowell said.

At 2019’s ‘solar minimum,’ the number of visible sunspots on the sun’s surface was effectively zero, but at the coming maximum in July 2025, the US National Space Weather Prediction Center has estimated that there could be up to 115 sunspots. 

While this 11-year solar cycle only raises the total radiation coming out of the sun a deceptively small 0.1 percent, that excess is very concentrated in sunspot activity.

These increases to the 173,000 terawatts (trillions of watts) of solar energy that continuously hit Earth have been documented to disrupt satellites, black out radio communications, and interfere with the power grid.

But even before next year’s most hectic phase, where Earth could easily find itself in the line of fire from multiple sunspots over the course of summer 2025, there is still ongoing stress on the world’s satellite infrastructure — just from the sun’s elevated radiation as it approaches the solar maximum.

‘For the past few months, even without solar storms, the drag rate on Hubble [Space Telescope] has been 10 times bigger than it was during the solar minimum,’ Dr. McDowell told DailyMail.com

‘These solar storms while dramatic are actually only part of the story for satellites,’ he explained. 

‘This whole period of the next few years will be pulling satellites down much more than most of the previous decade.’

Sunspot AR3664, which released flares this past weekend, had reached a size that now competes with the sunspot responsible for the infamous 1895 Carrington event - which sent telegraph wires ablaze, shutting down international communication

Sunspot AR3664, which released flares this past weekend, had reached a size that now competes with the sunspot responsible for the infamous 1895 Carrington event – which sent telegraph wires ablaze, shutting down international communication

Last Friday’s G5 geomagnetic solar storm disrupted farmers ‘global positioning system’ (GPS) satellites and stalled planting equipment across the US Midwest.

‘All the tractors are sitting at the ends of the field right now shut down because of the solar storm,’ one farmer, Kevin Kenney, told 404 Media last weekend. ‘No GPS.’

‘I’ve never dealt with anything like this,’ Patrick O’Connor, who owns a farm roughly a 90-minute drive south Minneapolis, told the New York Times

Some disruptions were also occurring with the orbital astronomy platforms that Dr. McDowell is more familiar with, but he suspects the bigger risks are still to come.

‘This one we had — you know, the aurora was beautiful, it was a big storm — but it certainly wasn’t the biggest storm on record or anything like that,’ Dr. McDowell said.

As energetic particles from the solar storm heated up Earth’s upper-atmosphere this weekend, the heat generated thickened the air — not unlike a how air feels thicker in a sauna — adding ‘drag’ to the orbital movements of satellites. 

The Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers discovered, in fact, is likely to ends its lifecycle a little sooner thanks to the drag created by the solar storm.   

Although Hubble is relatively stable in its orbit, that path can be thought of as a long, spiraling ‘free fall’ back to Earth, and Dr. McDowell said that Hubble’s rate of orbital decay doubled ‘about 80 meters a day instead of 40 meters a day,’ due to the storm.

‘You have multiple impacts,’ Dr. McDowell told DailyMail.com. 

‘You have the increased drag. You have increased radiation. You have an increased risk of getting electrostatic discharges on your spacecraft.’

‘Mission controllers are a little bit more ‘on the edge of their seats’ during a solar storm than they are on an ordinary day,’ the astrophysicist noted. 

Dr. McDowell's works with NASA’s Chandra X-ray telescope (above), launched in 1999 to collect X-ray emissions from exploded stars, far-off galactic clusters and the matter swirling blackholes. The Chandra team put the satellite in partial shutdown to weather the solar storm

Dr. McDowell’s works with NASA’s Chandra X-ray telescope (above), launched in 1999 to collect X-ray emissions from exploded stars, far-off galactic clusters and the matter swirling blackholes. The Chandra team put the satellite in partial shutdown to weather the solar storm

Dr. McDowell works directly with NASA’s Chandra X-ray telescope observatory, launched into a distant orbit 86,500-miles away in 1999, to collect X-ray emissions from exploded stars, far-off galactic clusters and the matter swirling blackholes. 

‘Over the weekend, we took some precautions to save some of its instruments to best protected against the onslaught of the storm,’ he said.

‘Shutting certain bits down,’ Dr. McDowel noted while explaining that it was to reduce the threat of short-circuiting and electrical damage, ‘but not the whole spacecraft.’

‘We have lost expensive satellites in solar storms in the past.’

According to a NASA presentation on solar storms, a 1994 event triggered electrical failures in three satellites, one Intelsat K communications satellite made by US defense contractor Lockheed Martin and two Canadian Anik television satellites. 

While two of the satellites were partially recovered, one was lost without a trace.

‘Satellite engineers and scientists are cautious to admit the sun was ultimately to blame when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake and law suits could result from the wrong answers,’ the NASA presentation said.

Right now the only predictive method space weather experts have for forecasting when a major solar storm is likely to strike is following the path of ‘sunspots.’

These magnetically dense areas of turbulence on the solar surface produce solar flares and more powerful ‘coronal mass ejection’ (CME) eruptions of plasma. 

‘If you watch the sunspot going around the sun, what we call an ‘active area,” Dr. McDowell said, ‘you can say, ‘Oh, I’m seeing that sunspot, and it’s going to be facing the Earth in two days.’ So, if it happens to burp, then then we could be in trouble.’

WHAT IS THE SOLAR CYCLE?

The Sun is a huge ball of electrically-charged hot gas that moves, generating a powerful magnetic field.

This magnetic field goes through a cycle, called the solar cycle.

Every 11 years or so, the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips, meaning the sun’s north and south poles switch places. 

The solar cycle affects activity on the surface of the Sun, such as sunspots which are caused by the Sun’s magnetic fields. 

Every 11 years the Sun's magnetic field flips, meaning the Sun's north and south poles switch places. The solar cycle affects activity on the surface of the Sun, increasing the number of sunspots during stronger (2001) phases than weaker (1996/2006) ones

Every 11 years the Sun’s magnetic field flips, meaning the Sun’s north and south poles switch places. The solar cycle affects activity on the surface of the Sun, increasing the number of sunspots during stronger (2001) phases than weaker (1996/2006) ones

One way to track the solar cycle is by counting the number of sunspots.

The beginning of a solar cycle is a solar minimum, or when the Sun has the least sunspots. Over time, solar activity – and the number of sunspots – increases.

The middle of the solar cycle is the solar maximum, or when the Sun has the most sunspots.

As the cycle ends, it fades back to the solar minimum and then a new cycle begins.

Giant eruptions on the Sun, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, also increase during the solar cycle.

These eruptions send powerful bursts of energy and material into space that can have effects on Earth.

For example, eruptions can cause lights in the sky, called aurora, or impact radio communications and electricity grids on Earth. 



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