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Effects of Solar storms on the Earth
What is a solar storm?
A solar storm is a type of disturbance in the earth’s magnetosphere that is caused by the interaction of charged particles that are shot out of the Sun. This stream of charged particles coming from the Sun is called the Solar Wind. Abnormalities in the solar wind can be caused by events that happen on the Sun’s surface. One such event is a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME).
A coronal mass ejection (CME) is a huge outburst of charged particles and radiation from the sun. The Sun doesn’t just emit light and radiation it also emits a lot of particles. This is due to the chemical process that occur inside the sun and that is Nuclear Fusion. Nuclear Fusion is very powerful. It is over ten times the power produced by nuclear fission which is the process used by nuclear reactors today. Like a nuclear bomb, a nuclear fusion process can shoot matter outward at very high velocities.
Another event that can cause surges in the Solar wind is a Solar Flare. A solar flare is an arc-like shape coming out of the Sun’s surface which is an indicator of a massive release of energy from the sun. Electrons, Protons and ions are heated to millions of Kelvin and are shot out from the Suns surface at speeds near that of light. A solar flare is usually followed by a massive Coronal Mass Ejection.
How does a Solar Storm Affect the Earth and us?
Both Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) and Solar flares cause outbursts in the Solar wind. Since the solar wind is composed of charged particles travelling at fast speeds, once it hits the earth’s magnetosphere the stream of charged particles in the magnetosphere will be disturbed. Disturbances in the earth’s magnetosphere are called geomagnetic storms. When the magnetosphere is disturbed, the magnetic field of the earth will also be disturbed.
We are taught in Physics that a moving charge will cause a magnetic field. Surges in the solar wind can accelerate charged particles in the earth’s magnetosphere. And this can cause to sharply increasing and sharply decreasing magnetic fields. These rapid changes in the Earth’s magnetic field can adversely affect the operation and integrity of electrical and electronic systems in the earth. Since according to Faraday’s Law of Induction, a changing magnetic field can induce a current in any closed loop of conductor and closed loops is essential to the operation of any device that uses electricity.
This means that a large and rapid change in the magnetic field of the Earth can damage or destroy any electrical or electronic device. Strong magnetic fields are also thought to affect living organisms.
In addition, the presence of radiation coming from masses from the Sun can affect biological systems in the earth. Radiation, as we know, can cause mutation. This is especially hazardous to people flying while there is a solar storm and it is more dangerous to women who are pregnant because of the delicate state of the child in the womb. It is the reason why pregnant women should check space weather before flying.
There are instances in history when a solar storm has created significant damage to infrastructure. One event is known as the Solar Storm of 1859 or the 1859 Solar Superstorm where EMF or voltage is induced in the telegraph wires in the US that shocked some of the operators and caused fire. Another is the 1989 solar storm where a Hydro-electric power plant which tripped circuit breakers causing a blackout lasting 9 hours.