Could a Powerful Solar Flare Destroy the Earth?
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As natural disasters go, this one could be a Cosmic Tsunami
We all probably take the sun for granted, because it comes up every day and the energy it produces is free, nonpolluting and helps plants grow. No wonder so many civilizations over the millennia have worshipped the sun, essentially calling it God or at least a god.
But these positive aspects come with a major negative one. Every once in a while, the sun reminds us how powerful and unpredictable it can be by firing a massive wave of energy our way. Usually the earth’s atmosphere blocks most if not all of this radiation, though occasionally it still causes damage – more than we may imagine.
Let’s find out how destructive our nearby star can be - and you thought it could only cause sunburns!
Discovery of Solar Flares
Understandably, solar flares were discovered about the time a really powerful one erupted from the surface of the sun way back in 1859. Both Richard Christopher Carrington and Richard Hodgson identified this solar event as a major brightening within a group of sun spots. (Interestingly, stellar flares have been observed on other stars within our galaxy.)
The source of solar flares always seems to be sun spots. Sun spots are dark, irregular-shaped areas on the surface of the sun. The first recorded discovery of sun spots was back in 364 B.C.E. by a Chinese astronomer named Gan De. Sun Spots are areas of intense magnetic activity that inhibit convection of the sun’s molten currents and eddies, thereby producing coronal mass eruptions, which fling the sun’s matter into space. Sun spots can move about the surface of the sun and many are so large they can be seen without the aid of a telescope, a situation that must have helped Gan De identify them thousands of years ago!
Sunspot activity operates on an 11-year solar cycle, which affects the weather on earth. In fact, a minimum of sun spots over this period - just scores of them rather than the usual tens of thousands - can cause severe weather on earth. From 1645 to 1717, a time known as the Maunder Minimum, average temperatures plunged throughout North America and Europe, perhaps the coldest part of the so-called Little Ice Age, which took place from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.
How Solar Flares Work
A solar flare ejects massive amounts of electrons, protons and other charged particles, which fly through space at millions of miles per hour. As these energetic particles move through interstellar space, they emit radiation such as radio waves, as well as the much more powerful X-rays and gamma rays. When this radiation strikes the earth’s atmosphere, the auroral displays in the north and south can be spectacular.
But of greater concern, as these charged particles hit the earth’s ionosphere, an area of the atmosphere ionized by solar radiation, communications on earth can be disrupted, sometimes to a great degree. Communication and GPS satellites can also be damaged, if not destroyed. This shower of radiation, including deadly X-rays and gamma rays, can hit the earth’s surface as well, damaging electronic circuitry, as well as harming people, plants and animals. People flying at high altitude would have a lot to worry about, and astronauts in space much more.
The Worst Case Scenario
An article on the website U.S. News explained that the earth will remain in the most powerful portion of the current sunspot cycle until 2014, increasing the possibility of a so-called Cosmic Katrina.
When the solar flare or “megaflare” Carrington and Hodgson observed in 1859 struck the earth, one of the few electrical devices around was the telegraph. Since then, of course, the world has changed. The same solar flare could wreak havoc on the electrical grids and electronic circuitry used throughout our modern world, causing trillions of dollars of damage.
An article on the website National Geographic Daily News predicted that if the Carrington megaflare hit today, the world would revert to the horse and buggy era of 1859. Back then, the auroral displays were so bright that in the northeastern U.S. one could read a newspaper at night from the illumination of the Aurora borealis! And, during the major portion of the flare, telegraph operators reported sparks flying from their equipment, causing some fires!
The largest potential damage coming from this Cosmic Tsunami would be to the transformers comprising electrical grids throughout the world. When these transformers fail, they have to be replaced. Power companies stockpile some transformers but the rest would have to be manufactured – with little or no electricity available for the process. Therefore, it could take months or years to replace all of them. In the meantime there’d be little if any electricity, so people would have to rely on muscle power - their own or that of animals.
Don’t get rid of your horse – or dog - just yet!
Who knows how likely this Cosmic Tsunami really is. But we must remain aware of the possibility and do what we can to protect our valuable equipment. For example, in the United States, the aging electrical grid needs to be rebuilt, reducing its vulnerability to a solar megaflare, as well as the possibility that a foreign power or terrorist group could detonate an atmospheric bomb designed to destroy the country’s electrical grid with an electromagnetic pulse or EMP. Unfortunately, rebuilding the electric grid will cost billions of dollars.
On an optimistic note, space probes and sophisticated telescopes, both on the ground and in space, have been studying the sun for many years, so maybe we’ll have some warning before the next megaflare heads our way.
As for the possibility of the sun destroying the earth, this will happen a billion years from now when the sun enters a brightening phase, which will boil away the earth's oceans and bake the land to a crisp, essentially making earth uninhabitable. However, it’s very unlikely that a megaflare will kill us all any time soon, if ever, so let's be happy about that.
Hey, back in 1859 we were warned about the dangers of solar flares. At least the sun did that much for us!
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© 2012 Kelley