The sun is in an exciting phase of its solar cycle, as demonstrated by the vibrant aurora that lit up the night sky in early May, visible to millions across North America. Part 1 of The Dark Side of the Aurora explored historic geomagnetic storms that produced massive auroras and disrupted critical infrastructure like the Hydro Quebec power grid in 1989. Now, let’s delve into the potential risks our technology-dependent society could face today if a severe geomagnetic storm were to strike Earth, and who is responsible for monitoring space weather activity in Canada.

Surprisingly, it is not the Canadian Space Agency or NORAD but Natural Resources Canada that oversees space weather monitoring. The department has a team of space weather duty forecasters on call 24/7 to assess space weather conditions. When a solar flare or coronal mass ejection (CME) is detected, scientists have a brief window of about 30 minutes to evaluate the potential impact on critical infrastructure, such as power grids and communication systems.

David Boteler, head of the space weather group at Natural Resources Canada, conducts research on the hazards posed by geomagnetic disturbances. His work helps assess the effects of intense geomagnetic activity on various systems and industries, including power grids, pipelines, and radio communications. Stakeholders in telecommunications, like Ritesh Kotak, emphasize the need for preparedness in the face of geomagnetic storm blackouts, citing the widespread effects of the 2022 Rogers outage on Canadians.

With the increasing reliance on satellite technology for internet connectivity, the vulnerability of satellites to geomagnetic storms is a growing concern. The presence of over 10,000 objects orbiting Earth, including Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites like Elon Musk’s Starlink, highlights the potential risks posed by energetic particles from the sun. Factors like the speed of solar ejections and the state of Earth’s magnetic field determine the impact of geomagnetic storms on satellites, affecting services like cell networks and GPS.

Despite the potential threats posed by geomagnetic storms, experts like Dan Welling and Phil Langill reassure that ongoing research and preparedness efforts by government agencies and private industries mitigate the risks. New Zealand’s successful implementation of the Solar Tsunamis program during the May 2024 event demonstrates the effectiveness of proactive measures in safeguarding against space weather impacts.

While the vulnerability of modern technology to geomagnetic storms is a pressing issue, advancements in monitoring and response capabilities offer a sense of assurance. By staying informed and prepared, we can navigate the challenges posed by space weather events and continue to enjoy the benefits of technological advancements. So, let’s stay vigilant, stay informed, and appreciate the wonders of the universe.