Could an extremely powerful solar flare destroy all the electronics on Earth?

Frying Electronics with the Sun

A powerful solar storm could cause power lines to snap across an entire continent.
A powerful solar storm could cause power lines to snap across an entire continent.

While a solar flare alone might not be enough to cause problems on Earth's surface, a powerful CME is another story. In fact, massive CMEs have affected the Earth in the past. But we weren't as advanced in electronics, nor did we depend upon them as heavily the last time a CME really smacked us around.

In 1859, an enormous CME caused massive magnetic fluctuations in the Earth's magnetosphere -- the magnetic field surrounding the planet. People living as far south as Cuba witnessed the northern lights phenomenon. Compasses and telegraph systems failed. Scientists and academics debated the cause of all the commotion. We now know it was due to a CME. The CME was so massive that it caused what we call a solar superstorm.

Today, we depend much more heavily upon electronics and electricity than we did in 1859. If a similar solar superstorm were to hit us now, we'd be in trouble. The magnetic forces would induce electricity in any large conductor. That includes power transformers and the power grid itself.

That's not the end of the bad news. The power grid in North America operates at near capacity. It wouldn't be able to handle the increased electrical load from a solar superstorm. Power lines could sag and even snap as a result. Massive power outages could affect much of the continent. The magnetic fluctuations would interfere with radio signals, and communication and satellite systems would collapse as well.

It could take weeks or months to repair the damage. During that time, people would have no way to find out what was going on. Emergency services would face serious challenges. While the magnetic fields would probably not short out individual electronics devices like cell phones or computers, communications systems could fail regionally. In other words, small devices would still work but would lack the services they require to be useful.

It's possible that a CME could even affect your computer and cause glitches. In most cases, a simple reboot would solve the problem. But with the loss of the power grid, you'd be limited by your battery's charge. Once that ran out, you'd be stuck.

There's no way to prevent a solar superstorm but there are steps we can take to limit the impact of a CME. One is to overhaul the power grid system. We need a smart grid that isn't operating so close to capacity as our current grid. We also need to develop shielding to protect our electrical infrastructure from magnetic fluctuations as much as possible.

Even in these worst-case scenarios, the superstorms don't wipe out all electrical systems across the planet. Some regions would remain relatively unaffected. It would require a solar event of unprecedented magnitude to wipe out the electrical systems across the planet. But even a modest CME could demonstrate how vulnerable we are to the sun's magnetic temper tantrums.

Learn more about the sun, magnets and electronics by following the links below.

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  • Beasley, Sandra. "Look at the Sun." American Scholar. Summer 2008. Vol. 77, Issue 3, p. 17.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. "Geomagnetic field." 2009. (Nov. 2, 2009)
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. "Solar flare." 2009. (Nov. 2, 2009)
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. "Solar wind." 2009. (Nov. 2, 2009)
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. "Sun." Encyclopedia 2009. (Nov. 2, 2009)
  • Odenwald, Sten F. "Bracing for a Solar Superstorm." Scientific American. August 2008. Vol. 299, Issue 2, pp. 80-87.
  • Plait, Philip, Ph.D. "Death From the Skies!" New York: Viking. 2008. pp. 33-66.
  • Turner, James. "Solar storms ahead: Is Earth prepared?" The Christian Science Monitor. May 6, 2009. pg. 25.