The Sun is an essential source of nourishment for life on Earth, but it is also prone to volatile behavior that can pose risks to human civilization. Every so often, the Sun spews out streams of plasma, known as solar flares or coronal mass ejections, that can pelt Earth with charged particles that mess with modern electronics, power grids, and satellites.
Tatiana Podladchikova, assistant professor at the Space Center of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) in Moscow, is an expert in these volatile “space weather” events. To illustrate just how disruptive the Sun can be, you don’t have to look too far in the past, she said.
“Imagine this situation: you wake up in the morning and it’s the middle of March, for instance—it is cold inside and you realize that your central heating isn’t working,” Podladchikova said in a VICE News interview. You go to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, but realize that your kettle or coffee machine isn’t working either, nor is the refrigerator, any of the lights, or the internet, and outside it’s the same story.”
“This sounds like an apocalyptic scenario, right?” she continued. “But this actually happened in Canada in 1989.”
On March 13 of that year, a massive solar storm wiped out the electrical grid across the province of Québec. The blackout lasted for several hours and caused all kinds of disruptions in the region, while also prompting some satellites to go temporarily haywire in space.
For space weather scientists like Podladchikova, these events are a reminder that the technological foundations of human civilization are deeply vulnerable to solar storms.
“We study the mood of the Sun, how it spreads to the Earth, and how to protect our society and technologies in space,” she said.
To that end, scientists have a lot of work to do to develop comprehensive space weather forecasts, rapid alert systems, and infrastructure that might be more resilient to the Sun’s eruptions.
Podladchikova shares her thoughts about those efforts to avert the next disaster in the new interview, and also shares the story of how the Voyager spacecraft—which will eventually escape the Sun’s influence—set her on the path to becoming a solar scientist.