Now, while all of this stuff is going on in the geomagnetic field, what's happening in space? Hard radiation, and lots of it, that's what. After all, that's basically what's causing the disturbance in the geomagnetic field.
And of course NOAA has another scale that relates to that, called the solar storm scale, and represented by – you guessed it – S.
There's not a direct correlation that I've ever been able to find between the G scale and the S scale, because the S scale is determined by the number of protons of a given energy that passes through, say a square meter in a second. This number is called the proton flux. (In the case of the S scale, the energy of the protons must be greater than or equal to 10MeV, where MeV is mega-electron-volts. An electron volt is very tiny, only 1.6x10-19 joules. So an MeV is an energy of 1.6x10-12 joules. It's not big, but when you're talking about something as small as a proton, it's big enough.)
So at S1, our proton flux is 10 protons per second per steradian per square centimeter. (This is not a very big area. The bigger the number of protons passing through, the bigger the radiation dose.) An S1 is a minor solar storm. According to NOAA, the effects are as follows, “Biological: none. Satellite operations: none. Other systems: minor impacts on HF radio in the polar regions.” This happens a lot, but not quite as often as a G1 – an S1 occurs about 50 times per solar cycle.
An S2 is a moderate solar storm. It requires a proton flux of 100, and occurs half as often as an S1. Effects: “Biological: passengers and crew in high-flying aircraft at high latitudes may be exposed to elevated radiation risk. Satellite operations: infrequent single-event upsets possible. [A single-event upset, or SEU, is when the bit of a computer is accidentally reset to its opposite condition by a proton or electron impact.] Other systems: small effects on HF propagation through the polar regions and navigation at polar cap locations possibly affected.”
S3 is a little stronger still; it's a “strong” solar storm, with a proton flux of 1000. (Note that the solar storm scale is a logarithmic scale like the Richter scale, with each step of the scale having 10x greater proton flux than the previous.) Only 10 of these typically occur per solar cycle, but they aren't pleasant. “Biological: radiation hazard avoidance recommended for astronauts on EVA; passengers and crew in high-flying aircraft at high latitudes may be exposed to radiation risk. Satellite operations: single-event upsets, noise in imaging systems, and slight reduction of efficiency in solar panel are likely. Other systems: degraded HF radio propagation through the polar regions and navigation position errors likely.”
Stepping up to an S4, a severe solar storm, we have a proton flux of 10,000. They are pretty rare, with only about 3 per solar cycle occurring. “Biological: unavoidable radiation hazard to astronauts on EVA; passengers and crew in high-flying aircraft at high latitudes may be exposed to radiation risk. Satellite operations: may experience memory device problems and noise on imaging systems; star-tracker problems may cause orientation problems, and solar panel efficiency can be degraded. Other systems: blackout of HF radio communications through the polar regions and increased navigation errors over several days are likely.”
And finally the granddaddy of solar storms, the S5, the extreme storm. It has a proton flux of 100,000 protons per second per steradian per square centimeter. Simply put, a flood of 100,000 protons is striking every square centimeter (less than half an inch each way), every second. These are very rare, and may or may not occur in any given solar cycle. But they can be devastating. “Biological: unavoidable high radiation hazard to astronauts on EVA (extra-vehicular activity); passengers and crew in high-flying aircraft at high latitudes may be exposed to radiation risk. Satellite operations: satellites may be rendered useless, memory impacts can cause loss of control, may cause serious noise in image data, star-trackers may be unable to locate sources; permanent damage to solar panels possible. Other systems: complete blackout of HF (high frequency) communications possible through the polar regions, and position errors make navigation operations extremely difficult.”
We're fortunate those don't occur very often at all.
But even the typical description of a G5 or S5 doesn't match the strongest geomagnetic storm in history.