The earth's own magnetic field is usually
strong enough to deflect and absorb most of the radiation put out by
the Sun. Occasionally the sun will form an open field line region on
its surface, creating a coronal hole and generating a high-speed solar
wind stream. This stream interacts with the ambient solar wind,
increasing the bow-shock to the earth. These disruptions in the Earth's
magnetic field can cause it to stretch and break at the poles, either
reconnecting the lines to the interplanetary magnetic field, (field
produced by the sun and other heavenly bodies in the solar system), or
dragging them back into the tail region. Regardless, there is now a
hole in the magnetosphere, allowing the solar wind to directly interact
with the atmosphere at those points, producing magnetospheric substorms
and a ring current.
For the solar wind to create a geomagnetic
storm large enough to have a significant impact on the performance of
electronic devices, a significant increase in radiation is necessary.
This will be most probable in a period of high solar wind and frequent
solar flares, called a Solar Maximum Event. For a period of about a
month every eleven years, the solar wind can radiate nearly 100 times
as much matter than average, producing much stronger magnetic fields
and exciting the earth's magnetic field and atmosphere. Combined with a
coronal mass ejections which could disturb the solar field as well as
reduce the cover of the earth's magnetosphere, the magnetic field
disruptions could be as high as 1T.
According to research by TSU at the National
High Magnetic Field Laboratory, significant impairment of operation for
MOSFET type transistors occurs at 4T and above. While a 1T magnetic
storm may not directly cripple any transistors, it would certainly do
damage to those already in the presence of magnetic fields, such as
those on computer hard drives containing magnets and perhaps power
control systems exposed to high voltage.
When the ring current forms under conditions
such as these, it too can play an influential role in disrupting
electronics. The ring current, though fairly high in the atmosphere,
causes mutual inductance in electronic systems on the ground. Take a DC
system running in the opposite direction of the ring current for
example; it will gain an amount of current proportional to the ring
current, potentially burning out the system. A DC system running in the
same direction will lose current, shutting down the system.
The third effect that a massive geomagnetic
storm could produce is an induction of current in civil projects that
were never meant to carry significant current, such as oil and gas
pipelines and telecommunications cables. Like with the hypothetical DC
system, a current will be induced in the line traveling in the opposite
direction of the ring current. This could be very costly if the line is
not grounded correctly, as a high voltage discharge could damage the
line itself and anything, living or not, which happens to ground it.