A solar storm refers to the affect that a solar flare or coronal mass ejection from the sun has on the Earth’s magnetic field. On a day-to-day basis, the magnetosphere is bombarded by solar wind, which consists of particles travelling at between 350-400 kilometres per second. It is these particles which are largely responsible for the northern and southern lights that are seen around the north and south poles. The magnetosphere generally protects us on a daily basis, explaining why we don’t have power cuts and signal losses constantly. However, the sun goes through 10-11 year cycles that dictate how much solar activity occurs and how many solar flares or coronal mass ejections are observed. In the previous cycle the solar activity was at a minimum, which has prompted many researchers to believe it is building up to a period of maximum activity over the coming years whilst in its current cycle. If this does happen it is extremely likely that a large coronal mass ejection will occur, launching a much greater number of particles towards the Earth, and possibly resulting in a ‘solar super storm’. These super storms are believed to occur every 100-200 years with NASA issuing a warning about 3 years ago that this was likely to happen in 2013.
As technology has evolved greatly since what was believed to be the last solar super storm (1859), it is unknown exactly how it will affect the modern world. There appears to be a lot of people out there who claim that almost all electronic-based technology will fail or ‘blackout’ when the storm hits. This is what happened in 1859, as the Victorian version of the internet, the telegram network, suffered power outages. It is believed that the UK will suffer major power outages and blackouts, with GPS systems and telecommunications networks also affected. These are all considered by most people to be vital everyday systems that we now cannot live without, so to see them all stop working at once is likely to cause widespread panic. However, a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering has said that the UK is actually better prepared for a solar super storm than most countries, including the US. The power grid shouldn’t be affected too badly due to well engineered transformers being partly loaded, this stops them maxing out because of the energetic solar particles. The telecommunications networks that are land-based (fibre-optics etc.) will not be affected because they have back-up systems for when the GPS fails, whilst the mobile networks are also unlikely to be affected because they do not rely on GPS signals either. GPS is the only system that is likely to fail, possibly for up to 3 days, affecting satellite navigation and aeroplanes. And despite the problems likely to be faced by aeroplanes, it will still be possible to fly as the electronics should not be affected as much as predicted.
So there are two very contrasting views. The UK will blackout and lose everything electronic-based OR the UK will be absolutely fine, with slight disruptions but nothing major. I believe it’s more likely to be the latter.