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Effect of solar flares on the earth

Updated on March 13, 2013
A huge solar flare
A huge solar flare | Source

What is a Solar flare?

A solar flare is a sudden brightening on the Sun’s surface. It is characterized by a very massive release of energy equivalent to billions of billions of tons of explosives. It is a million times more powerful than a nuclear explosion. A solar flare can also be seen as an arc on the surface of the sun. Solar flares are caused by the interaction of various charged particles and magnetic fields inside and on the surface of the sun.

Solar flares eject charged particles, ions and superheated gasses into space and are known to be followed by coronal mass ejections. A solar flare is a kind of Solar storm. Solar flares usually come from regions of the sun that has sun spots.

Solar Flares
Solar Flares | Source

What does it have to do with Sun Spots?

Sun spots are a cooler region on the Sun’s surface. Sun spots are also darker than its surroundings and there is a lot of magnetic activity there. Sun spots are well known to breed solar flares. The more the sun spots the more likely a solar flare will happen. Sun spots also determine what we call the solar weather.

How can a Solar flare affect the earth?

The effect of a solar flare on the earth is determined by the following factors: the direction of the solar flare and the magnitude of the solar flare.

The direction of a solar flare is important. If it is facing the earth then charged particles are more likely to hit us. If it is facing away, then most likely we are safe. It can cause some interactions though but it is minimal.

The magnitude determines how powerful will be the effect of a solar flare on us. The larger the flare the more energy it releases and the more charged particles, ionized masses and magnetic fields it will throw at us. The “things” a solar flare throws out can interact with our own magnetic field.

Our magnetic field deflects most of the charged particles – the solar wind that we receive from the Sun. We have a steady flow of charged particles on our magnetosphere – the sphere made by the deflected particles from the sun.

When a massive amount of charged particles and ionized gasses interact with our magnetosphere, the magnetosphere can shrink. This makes us more exposed to these particles which then do have magnetic fields of their own. The result is that we experience a powerful changing magnetic field.

So what can this changing magnetic field do?

From faraday’s law of induction, a changing magnetic field can induce a current inside a close loop of conductor. All of the devices that use electricity have closed loops. It may be a desk fan, a laptop a cellular phone or the generators in power plants that generate electricity for us. All of these are affected by changing magnetic fields.

When the change in magnetic field is very big, it can cause huge currents in any affected circuit. All circuits have a certain limit to as to how much electrical current it can accommodate. If that is exceeded, the device might break down.

In simple words, solar flares can cause a geomagnetic storm on earth and damage electrical and electronic systems.

Orbital Satellites can be affected by solar flares
Orbital Satellites can be affected by solar flares | Source

What else can a solar flare do to us?

A solar flare can affect us by damaging our communication systems. Asides from its capability of disabling electronic circuits, weaker solar flares can damage orbital satellites essential for communication systems.

A solar flare can also cause an increase to the level of radiation that we get from the sun. Solar flares also throw out radiation. People in high altitudes, like those in high altitude flights, will be more exposed to radiation.

Is there anything we can do about it?

We cannot stop a solar flare. We can only prepare for it. Remember what happened in 1859 – the Carrington event. It is the most powerful solar storm ever recorded. It was named after Richard Carrington who saw the two flares that caused aurora lights around the world and caused a lot of damage to telegraph systems that time.

Be wary of space weather. The more sun spots the sun has, the more solar activity there is and the more likely a solar flare can erupt which means the more possibility of a solar storm.


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