Extreme solar storms can strike out of the blue. Are we really prepared?

A surprise solar storm in 2003 disrupted hundreds of flights all over the world, causing spacecraft controllers to lose track of low Earth orbit satellites for days and cut power to tens of thousands of people in Sweden. Now, nearly 20 years later, one of the world’s leading space weather forecasters admits that our life-giving star can still catch us unprepared.

October 2003 was a quiet month at the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) of the US National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA). The sleepy sun was heading toward a minimum in its 11-year cycle of activity, churning out a mediocre 100 sunspots a month. In a week, everything changed. The sun broke out with the largest cluster of sunspots in more than 10 years and pummeled Earth with a barrage of flares and plasma eruptions that unleashed the most vicious space weather event in recent history.

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