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Northern Lights, Solar Flares, and Protecting Your Electronics

Norther Lights

The recent surge in solar activity, marked by the eruption of a colossal X-class solar flare from Sunspot AR3664, has captivated the attention of both scientists and skywatchers. Such powerful solar events not only enhance the beauty of the Northern Lights but also raise concerns about their potential to disrupt our technological infrastructure.

In this article you will learn about

  1. The solar cycle, sunspots and solar flares
  2. How X-class solar flares damage our communications, GPS and power grid
  3. How to protect your home and personal electronics from the next X-class solar flare
  4. We’re peak solar cycle, what to expect going forward

Northern Lights – The Greatest Light Show on Earth

The Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, are a spellbinding natural phenomenon that becomes more vivid and widespread with increased solar flare activity. If you live far enough north you may have been lucky enough to see one of the most spectacular light shows in decades last Friday night, cause by an X-class solar flare, which was in turn caused by an enormous sunspot that recently developed.

The eruption of sunspot AR3664, which unleashed the powerful X-class solar flare that created the norther lights that graced our sky last Friday night, is so large that that it is approximately the width of 17 Earths! In Fact, it’s so big you can see it with the naked eye! If you still have your solar eclipse glasses, you can check it out yourself (do not look at the sun without proper safety glasses!).

How Sunspots Create Northern Lights

Sun with sun spots

So how do we get from a sunspot to the amazing Northern Light shows seen by millions?

When a solar flare occurs, it emits a burst of electromagnetic radiation and charged particles into space. This can include a coronal mass ejection (CME), which is a significant release of plasma and magnetic field from the sun's corona.

As these charged particles enter the Earth's upper atmosphere, they collide with gas molecules such as oxygen and nitrogen. These collisions excite the gas molecules, causing them to light up. The specific colors of the aurora—typically greens, reds, and occasionally blues and purples—are determined by the type of gas involved and the altitude of the interaction. Oxygen emits green and red light, while nitrogen can give off blue and purple hues.

This phenomenon is most observed near the polar regions due to the stronger magnetic influence at these latitudes, which is why the Northern Lights are frequently seen in areas like Scandinavia, Canada, and Alaska.

How X-class Solar Flares Damage Our Communications, GPS and Power Grid

The eruption of Sunspot AR3664, which unleashed the powerful X-class solar flare had a classification X2.25 at its peak, indicating a very strong flare capable of causing wide-ranging electromagnetic disturbances. So far, this event has caused radio blackouts across Europe and disruptions to GPS in some regions.

When the charged particles from the solar flare reach the Earth, it also causes the Earth’s magnetic field to fluctuate, and this interaction generates geomagnetically induced currents (GICs). These GICs flow through the Earth and can be induced into long conductive structures, such as long power lines and other long cables. Furthermore, the currents are typically direct current (DC), which power line transformers are not designed to handle.

The DC current can cause the transformers in the power grid to overheat. This is because it saturates the transformer core, leading to increased energy loss in the form of heat. Prolonged exposure to these currents can degrade the transformer's insulation and even lead to core damage.

Solar Flare

A well-documented example of such an impact occurred during the Quebec blackout in March 1989. A powerful geomagnetic storm induced currents in the Quebec power grid, causing multiple transformer failures and leading to a widespread blackout affecting millions of people for up to 9 hours.

In addition to permanently destroying power grid transformers, these X-class solar flares have the potential to disrupt GPS and other satellite-based communications. Fortunately, most satellites are hardened to withstand permanent damage and for the most part are only disrupted during the event and return to normal operation after the event has passed.

Protecting Your Home and Personal Electronics from X-class Solar Flares with a Faraday Bag

Most of the potential damage from solar flares is from the geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) that are picked up by long power lines, or other long conductive cables, which in turn causes significant DC current spikes to travel down the line. It’s these power spikes that can damage any plugged-in electronics.

If you live in an area with a modern power grid, most power spikes will be handled by the power grid and for the most part filtered before they get to your home. If a power grid is unable to stop an excessively large power spike, the next line of defense is the breaker in your home.

The breaker in your home will trip and cut the power to any devices plugged in at the time of the power spike, protecting your devices from damage... in theory. The potential issue is speed and whether the default breaker can trip the power fast enough to prevent the spike from moving through your home. There are concerns that under an extreme event like an X-class solar flare or an EMP, the breaker may not trip fast enough leaving your vital gear vulnerable. Fortunately, for the extra paranoid, there are faster breakers that can be attached to the incoming power in your home that are designed to cut the power fast enough to ensure your gear is safe from even the largest power spikes.

But what about our portable electronics? If your cell phone or laptop is not plugged in at the time of the event, then the risk to your gear will be minimal. However, it’s important to take this with a grain of salt as we’re basing this analysis on our past experiences of X-class solar flares. As with most astronomical phenomenon, the potential for significantly larger events than what we have witnessed exists, and so does the potential for more than usual damage to both our critical infrastructure as well as our portable electronics if the big one final comes.

Disaster preparedness practitioners, whether they’re first responders or casual preppers, who want to ensure their gear survives the big one, whether that’s and unexpectedly large X-class solar flare, or an EMP, know to store their personal electronics in a GoDark Faraday Bag. By placing devices such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets in a Faraday bag during intense solar activity, you can be extra careful in safeguarding them from the damaging effects of electromagnetic interference.

GoDark Faraday Bag for Phone and Tablet


We’re In Peak Solar Cycle – What to Expect

Sunspots are a common occurrence that typically follow an 11-year cycle alternating between high and low sunspot activity. We are currently in Solar Cycle 25, which began in December 2019. The cycle is progressing towards its peak, which is now expected to occur earlier and be stronger than previously forecasted. Initially, it was predicted to reach its maximum around July 2025, with a peak sunspot number of around 115. However, recent updates suggest that the peak could occur between January and October of 2024, with sunspot numbers ranging from 137 to 173. Regardless, we can expect a significant amount sunspot and solar flare activity over the next 12 months.

Sun with Solar Flares

The increase in solar activity serves as a reminder of our vulnerability to space weather events and the importance of preparedness. While we enjoy the spectacular light shows above, taking proactive steps to protect our electronic devices ensures that we can continue to observe and study these cosmic phenomena safely.  

If you want to track the latest solar activity and stay updated on what's coming our way from the sun, and maybe get a heads up on the next big Northern Lights show you can follow solar activity in near real-time Space Weather Live site. at