Solar storms—threat or too much hype?

Lately, it seems that every week or so, there’s a news story about solar storms, explosions, and flares, which, as the news stories ominously tell us, can take down entire power grids, disable phones and satellite navigation, and generally wreak havoc with electronics. But yet we seem to continue getting power and everything continues to function. Are solar storms all just hype or is there really a threat?

The sun is now entering the most active part of its cycle, producing explosions that spin solar winds towards the Earth. These solar storms produce damaging bursts of radiation, radio, and magnetic emissions and are perfectly capable of taking down power grids and computer networks. There is a long history of solar storms causing damage. In 1859 a solar “super storm” caused auroras that lit up the skies as far south as the Caribbean and disabled telegraph systems. In 1972, a solar flare disabled telephone service in Illinois. In 1989, a solar disturbance brought down the power grid in Quebec.

The current solar storm cycle is expected to peak in 2013. If it produces another solar super storm like the one in 1859, the effects would be devastating. Not only are today’s sophisticated electronics are far more vulnerable than 19th-century telegraph systems, but we’re also far more dependent on those electronics. A massive solar storm could easily bring down power grids around the world, ground planes, and disable the Internet.

Horizontal Rackmount Remote Power Manager

PDUs with remote access enable you to manage power from across your network or remotely from anywhere with Internet access (shown here: PS569A).

Although chances are that this solar cycle will not produce a storm as devastating as the one in 1859, there is still a small but significant chance that your IT infrastructure will be affected by solar storms.

What can you do to protect your systems from the effects of a solar storm? Fortunately the precautions needed to protect your infrastructure from this threat are what you are (or should be) doing anyway: Ground your equipment, use adequate surge protection, provide backup power, and back up your data regularly. That way, even if the very worst happens, knocking out power and computer networks, you’ll be up and running again quickly.

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