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A record flare recorded in 2003 in Region 486 of the sun. Photo: NASA via Getty Images

The upcoming 11-year solar cycle, which kicks off in 2020, is forecast to be quieter than the last but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent about solar storms, experts say.

Why it matters: Although rare, an extreme coronal mass ejection (CME) — a large burst of plasma sent out by the Sun — could cause a months-long blackout, harm satellites and cause billions in damage.

  • "If you do enough damage with a solar storm, then you start to take out the basic fabric of society," solar physicist Scott McIntosh told Axios.
  • Space weather can also pose a danger for astronauts in space.

The big picture: Even during relatively calm solar cycles, the Sun can assert itself in ways that could affect everything from GPS reliability to whether the lights stay on in your home.

  • "The fundamental challenge for us really is that the physics is so complex, that we don't have a full understanding of the science of space weather," NASA solar scientist Antti Pulkkinen told Axios.
  • Once a CME is detected by a fleet of satellites tracking the Sun, it takes anywhere from 18 hours to a couple of days for a CME to arrive in Earth's part of space.

It's happened before: Perhaps the most extreme example of a damaging solar storm occurred in 1859, when a huge CME hit Earth, lighting telegraph lines on fire and creating auroras that could be seen almost everywhere on the planet.

If our modern world were hit with a CME of that strength, the results would be far more costly and damaging than they were in the 1800s.

Details: Beyond satellites in space, experts are worried about the stability of critical infrastructure on the ground if a major CME were to impact our planet.

  • Utility operators can take certain parts of their systems offline if a big solar storm is detected and the electric grid is considered vulnerable.
  • However, utilities are still researching what exactly should be done in order to best protect the grid.

But, but, but: It would take a minimum of $3 billion to gird vulnerable transformers against the danger posed by these types of storms, according to Thomas Popik of the Foundation for Resilient Societies, a non-profit focused on protecting society from natural and human-caused threats.

What to watch: Last year, the Department of Energy established rules governing how emergency measures could be put in place to guard the grid against a storm.

  • In March, the Trump administration released an action plan centered on characterizing the threats from solar storms and then finding ways of mitigating them.

The bottom line: Because of the high stakes involved, some are calling for more rigorous legislation and regulation to make the U.S. more resilient.

  • Popik and other experts hope utilities will install hardware to protect vulnerable transformers.

Go deeper: What we still don't know about the Sun

Go deeper

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Updated 8 hours ago - Technology

A dark view of the future of autonomous weapons

A still from the video "If Human: Kill ( )." Image: Future of Life Institute

A new short film warns of the coming risks posed by the development and proliferation of lethal autonomous weapons.

Why it matters: Drones with the ability to autonomously target and kill without the assistance of a human operator are reportedly already being used on battlefields, and time is running out to craft a global ban of what could be a destabilizing and terrifying new class of weapon.

Updated 8 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus variant surveillance varies widely by state — Omicron cases confirmed in 5 U.S. states America probably won't lead the effort to understand Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: Omicron adds urgency to vaccinating world — Omicron fuels the case for COVID boosters — Moderna loses patent battles tied to COVID vaccine — Pfizer could have vaccine data for children under five by end of 2021, CEO says.
  3. Politics: Nevada to impose insurance surcharge on unvaccinated state workers — New Jersey GOP lawmakers defy statehouse COVID policy — Oklahoma sues Biden administration over Pentagon vaccine mandate — Omicron travel bans are sign of what's to come.
  4. World: WHO: Delta health measures help fight Omicron — COVID cases surge in South Africa in sign Omicron wave is coming — Germany approves new restrictions for unvaccinated people.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
Updated 13 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Prosecutors charge parents of Michigan school shooting suspect

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The parents of a 15-year-old accused of killing four students and wounding seven other people at a Michigan high school have been charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, according to court documents.

The latest: Lawyers for James and Jennifer Crumbley told the Detroit News they are "returning to the area to be arraigned," after law enforcement officials announced a search for the Crumbleys had been initiated.

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