Hurricanes, dust storms and blizzards can all knock out electrical lines, but what kind of damage can weather in space do?
Plenty. In a normal year, space weather costs the world about $10 billion per year, according to experts at the U.S. National Science Foundation.
The most powerful solar storm on record slammed into the Earth in 1859. Bursts of energy from the sun sent a stream of charged particles and corkscrewing magnetic fields toward the Earth at breathtaking speeds. The storm fried telegraph wires around the world and brought brilliant auroras all the way to Cuba.
If something like that happened today, Global Positioning System satellites, many countries’ power grids and electronics could grind to a halt.
A small solar storm recently hit Earth. A series of solar flares April 2–3 triggered significant blackouts for shortwave radios from East Africa to India and from the West Coast of the U.S. and Mexico to a huge swath of the Pacific Ocean.
“I always tell people we live in the atmosphere of our star,” said Scott McIntosh, a solar physicist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “But because 99.99 percent of the time it rises in the morning and sets in the evening without doing any damage, we take it for granted.”