(NEXSTAR) — We’ll soon reach the peak of Solar Cycle 25, improving our chances of seeing the northern lights. This point in the cycle could also, however, bring influxes to our infrastructure. And according to new predictions, the solar activity behind it all could be larger than originally expected.
NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) previously predicted the sun would reach its most active point, solar maximum, in mid-2024. While that timeframe hasn’t changed much — new predictions put it between January and October — it’s now expected to come quicker and be stronger than previously thought.
Solar cycles are an 11-year period when the sun flips its magnetic poles, sparking space weather. That includes coronal mass ejections, or CMEs — an explosion of plasma and magnetic material from the sun that can reach Earth in as little as 15 to 18 hours, NOAA explains.
“The sun won’t get that material back, and it’s coming out,” Dr. Delores Knipp, a research professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Nexstar. When solar activity ramps up, as it does during a solar cycle peak, the sun can experience three or four CMEs a day, though not all hit Earth.
Those CMEs that do impact Earth not only cause auroras but can impact our navigation, communication and radio signals.
We’ve seen some of those serious impacts before. There was the Great Halloween Solar Storms of 2003 caused by a series of powerful CMEs, NOAA reports. They brought dazzling northern lights displays as far south as California, Texas, and Florida — states that rarely ever see them — and caused other (less awe-inspiring) technical problems.
Half of the spacecraft orbiting Earth were impacted, causing disruptions to GPS, radio communication and satellite TV. A satellite was damaged beyond repair while astronauts aboard the International Space Station had to shield themselves from high radiation. On Earth, science groups in Antarctica lost communications for five days and GPS systems elsewhere were affected.
A 1972 solar storm is believed to have caused more than two dozen sea mines to explode off the coast of North Vietnam, Knipp and her colleagues recently determined. That same storm caused fluctuations in power grids across the northern U.S. and into Canada.
That event was similar to the Carrington Event, an 1859 solar storm that brought the aurora as far south as Florida, stunning (and scaring) many. In some places, the northern lights were so bright, people were confusing the auroras for the rising sun, NOAA explains.
Today, experts say a storm like the Carrington Event could knock out satellites and communication. Whole continents could lose electricity, and it could take weeks — or even longer — to fix it all.
The good news is a storm like the Carrington Event only happens about every 500 years. Still, solar storms — like those we could experience as Solar Cycle 25 peaks — can seriously impact Earth, its orbiting objects, and its people.
But Knipp notes that as we’ve become more reliant on technology, we’ve also become better at detecting solar storms.
If major solar activity is seen, the SWPC will issue an alert, Knipp explains. This warns those using high-frequency radios (like emergency managers), airlines, and those in charge of our electrical grid of the possible impacts on our communication systems, GPS, and electricity.
While it may sound alarming, you shouldn’t expect a five-day blackout and grounded flights if the aurora brightens up your sky.
There are resiliencies built into our electrical grids, flights, and communication systems to prevent or diminish any impact, Knipp explains. In fact, you may not even notice a solar storm has hit us. SWPC’s Rob Steenburgh previously told Nexstar that they “happen all the time and are no cause for alarm.”
Other systems, like instruments used by the U.S. Department of Defense and NOAA, are radiation hardened, Knipp explains, helping to protect from the impacts of a solar storm.
There are, however, some orbiting instruments that aren’t radiation-hardened. In 2022, for example, dozens of Starlink satellites came plummeting toward Earth’s atmosphere after being struck by a geomagnetic storm.
Overall, as solar activity increases in 2024, you may not notice anything other than a mesmerizing glow in the night sky.
“Some people worry that a gigantic ‘killer solar flare’ could hurl enough energy to destroy Earth, but this is not actually possible,” NASA previously explained Plus, solar cycles repeat every 11 years. That means anyone over the age of 11 has already lived through a solar maximum (and probably didn’t notice its occurrence).
An added bonus of the current solar cycle? The April 8, 2024, total solar eclipse will occur near cycle maximum, meaning a good show for skywatchers, NOAA explains.
Alix Martichoux and Dolan Reynolds contributed to this report.