- Education and Science
Sunspots, Solar Flares, Solar Storms and Climate Change
We are headed into a period of increased solar activity, which can have massive and cataclysmic effects on our life here on earth. Sunspots, solar flares and solar storms, are reaching peak activity, projected into 2012-2013, which is unparalleled in recorded history.
First, let's define some terms. What is a sunspot?
A sunspot is a dark spot on the sun, where super-intense electro-magnetic activity inhibits convection, causing an area that is lower in temperature (about 4000 degrees Celsius) than the surrounding areas (about 6000 degrees Celsius) and is visibly darker from the Earth.
What is a solar flare?
A solar flare is an extremely bright burst of light and radiation closely associated with the areas of intense electro-magnetic activity around a sunspot. It is, in effect, an extremely bright spot on the sun.
What is solar storm?
A solar storm is a succession of solar flares and coronal mass ejections (huge eruptions of hot, electro-magnetic solar plasma ejected far into space); a solar storm can last for minutes or for days, and can seriously disrupt life on earth.
On September 1, 1859, Richard Carrington, in his private observatory, recorded two patches of extraordinarily bright light near a cluster of sunspots. This event, the Carrington solar superstorm, was an enormous electromagnetic outburst from the sun that sent billions upon billions of tons of charged particles hurtling towards the Earth at close to the speed of light. These electro-magnetically charged particles collided with the Earth's magnetic field, causing some strange results.
For one thing, electrical currents surged through telegraph lines. Telegraph operators could disconnect from their power sources (batteries) and continue to transmit!
We have a much more wired world today than in 1859. In today's world, the electrical surge from a solar superstorm could wipe out many, many power transformers, maybe more transformers than the power companies have in their supply to replace. What happens then? The National Academy of Science estimated that a Carrington-class superstorm would leave most of North America without power for up to two months--no light, no telephone service, no potable water, sewage treatment is on the blink, the perishable food supplies run out after two or three days....
Chaos! The National Academy of Sciences report estimates the economic disruption equivalent to 20 Katrina hurricanes, costing in the trillions of dollars in the first year alone, and taking more than a decade to recover from. Yikes!
An electrical blackout. The grid goes down. We got a taste of this in Quebec in 1989, when a solar storm which was only one-third as intense as the Carrington superstorm knocked out power to six million people, in less than two minutes.
Space-weather centers, such as the Lockheed Martin's solar and Astrophysics Laboratory in Palo Alto, California, are adding staff. There is little they can do to accurately predict the next big solar storm; they do expect a period of maximum solar activity beginning this year and ending at the end of 2013.
Why is the sun acting up? What causes a cyclical period of increased solar activity; sunstorms and solar flares?
First, let's understand what the sun is. The sun is made up of plasma, which is not solid, not liquid and not gas. Plasma is a collection of atoms without neutrons--just photons and electrons, just the electrically charged particles and no electrically inert particles form the stuff of the sun; the sun is a simply splendid conductor of electricity (better than copper wire, better than anything we know on Earth.) The sun has several magnetic fields; they are "electro-magnetic pipes", massive tubular pipes of electro-magnetic fields which burst to the surface of the sun as sunspots, and also powers the solar winds, flinging millions of tons of solar plasma off into space every second at a million miles an hour.
The core of the sun is terrifically hot, about 27 million degrees Farenhiet, six times as dense as gold, and fusing 700 million tons of protons into helium nucleii every second, with the release of energy equivalent to ten billion hydrogen bombs!
The sun's activity goes through pulse-like patterns of change; solar flares increase in magnitude and occurrence and solar storms become more frequent as the whole solar system moves through the galaxy, on an elliptical spiral orbit which carries it out and slightly above the galactic plane, meaning the solar system is more exposed to the cosmic ray shock front our Milky Way creates as IT moves, revolving around the center of the universe. This whole, beautiful and majestic cycle takes about 250 million years to complete.
There are mini-cycles within major cycles for solar activity. The next peak of the 11-year mini-cycle also corresponds to the peak of the 24-year mini-cycle (caused by other fluctuations in this large, majestic orbit) in 2012-2013; our solar system is also nearing the "dark rift" in the Milky Way.
This "dark rift" is the cloudiest part of the Milky Way; it is full of molecular dust clouds, asteroid and meteors. The odds of an asteroid impact on the Earth which is large enough to create an "Extinction Event" go up to 10 times what they were outside of the "dark rift". It is heartening to note that the odds weren't very high to begin with!
The Earth is protected from solar radiation by the ionosphere--that layer of Earth's atmosphere high above the ozone layer, about 60 miles above the Earth's surface. This thin layer of ions (electrically charged particles) protects us by repelling dangerous solar radiation, as does the ozone layer, which is like a cloud or blanket of electrically neutral particles covering the Earth. The ionosphere forms a geo-magnetic field surrounding the whole Earth. We are encapsulated and insulated by this magnetic field.
Sunstorms and solar flares can disrupt our ionosphere, causing a powerful geomagnetic storm here on Earth, which in turn causes surges of power; causing all the large transformers on the power grid to overheat or catch fire or explode. An event such as the Carrington superstorm today could take out the entire grid, sending people back to pre-electric life for perhaps months on end.
Further negative effects of solar storms are an increase in ultraviolet radiation, up to very harmful levels, indeed, it is possible that the UV rays could reach a level inhibiting to all life on the planet; though that's a very extreme case.
There are also many indications that an increase in solar storm activity is responsible for some of the current climate changes we're seeing--that the Ross ice shelf is melting more rapidly; Antarctica is shrinking, and we see an overall global warming during this period.
The Japanese tsunamis are cause, at least in part, by solar flares and increased solar activity. the disruption of the Earth's magnetic field also has an impact on the tides of the sea.
What can we do about all this?
Well, very little, actually. We are powerless to affect the sun's activity, naturally. The only thing we can do is be prepared for an extended period, up to a couple of months, without electricity. Lay in some related supplies: dry food, candles, water, and all your basic survival gear, and hope for the best.
Just In Case
- Survival Kit List
Here's the complete list for a survival kit--in the event of ANY emergency.