According to Russian scientists, the sun is about to hit us in the head. A solar weather forecast from the Russian Academy of Sciences says that, on March 18, the sun will spit a solar flare in our direction, triggering a geomagnetic storm with the potential to shut down electronics as well as cause headaches, dizziness, and sleeplessness in people around the world. The March 18 storm is the third solar storm to hit the earth this year, but 2018 is expected to be a relatively quiet period of activity for the Sun. The last “solar maximum,” the period in the sun’s 11-year cycle with the most activity, occurred in 2014.
Extreme solar storms can wreak havoc on satellites, GPS, and other communication systems. In the event of a major solar storm, essential services can be shut down to prevent permanent damage. NASA says that the storm later this month will not be powerful to affect communications devices. Just like terrestrial weather, however, solar storms can strengthen or weaken in intensity, and the exact power of the storm won’t be known until it hits.
Solar storms don’t just affect technology. A good solar pummeling can have adverse effects on humans too. Increased risk of stroke during geomagnetic storms has been reported, as has increased intensity in migraine headaches and cluster headache cycles. Disruptions to sleep cycles have been correlated with solar flares as well.
Geomagnetic storms have also been associated with depression, headaches, dizziness, confused thinking, and erratic behaviors In other words, it won’t be the St. Patrick’s Day hangover on March 18 that will have you doubled over begging for death and yelling obscenities at anyone unlucky enough to be in earshot, it will totally be the Sun’s fault.
Geomagnetic storms are due in part to Coronal Mass Ejections (CME), clouds of plasma released alongside solar flares. These massive emissions of charged particles can cause Earth’s magnetic field to behave wildly when faced with a direct hit.
It’s a relatively common occurrence. The phenomenon of aurora borealis, or northern lights, is caused by the ejection of magnetic radiation from the sun. The storms are usually harmless, but a major solar storm could be devastating to a world increasingly reliant on global communications. In 1989 most of the Canadian province of Quebec was effected by a solar storm blackout, and the northern lights were seen as far south as Texas.
Recently the U.S. Geological Survey has deployed new techniques to model the effects of geomagnetic storms in 3D, allowing a more accurate forecast of the impact of these storms will have.
NASA says that the March 18 solar storm will not be anything to worry about. That’s good news, because the same forecast has two more similar solar storms occurring only a few days later. You can come up with your own joke about weathermen being wrong.