Archive for the ‘Sun’ Category

Solar Flares – Should we be Concerned?

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Massive Solar Flare

Recently Scientists released a report in which it was discovered that a massive solar storm narrowly missed Earth in 2012. This would’ve likely had massive, widespread effects on our way of life, potentially causing more than $2 trillion dollars worth of damage. To understand how this could happen we must first understand what a solar storm consists of.

Solar Flares and Coronal Mass Ejections

A solar flare is a massive burst of electromagnetic radiation on the sun’s surface. Although the exact cause of a solar flare is not known, it most likely involves charged electrons being accelerated rapidly with plasma in the sun. This most often happens in locations on the sun’s surface, at which the magnetic field of the sun becomes closely looped and disconnected, creating a helical magnetic field.

Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) often follow solar flares, as they are strongly tied to the magnetic field. CMEs are notable in that addition to electromagnetic radiation being sent into space; it also sends a massive amount of charged matter as plasma. While radiation reaches us within 9 minutes, the plasma takes anywhere from one to five days. It is these charged particles that have the greatest effect to us on Earth.

Artist rendering of a CME heading for Earth, and how Earth’s magnetic field is flexed.

CME Effects

Weak CMEs that reach Earth have little effect on human technology, and are most commonly associated with an increase in the Northern Lights. Also known as the Aurora, these multicolored lights occur at the Earth’s poles when charged particles interact with the polar ends of our magnetic field.

If a CME is more powerful, significant disruptions with technology can occur. When the charged matter of a CME reaches Earth, the matter flexes the Earth’s magnetic field around itself. On the opposite side of the Earth, the magnetic field is stretched out into space, and eventually snaps back. This snap causes significant electrical disturbances, which can in turn disrupt electronics on earth. Power transformers can overload from the sudden increase in electrical current, which can lead to long-term blackouts over very large areas. Additionally, GPS satellites can be affected by CMEs, causing inaccurate or dropped GPS readings.