It’s been a crazy month here on Earth, with devastating hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires. Mother Nature has hit hard in recent weeks, and it’s impossible not to notice (or to wonder if the world is finally coming to an end).
But while it has been so crazy here on Earth, something huge happened on the fiery rock that ensures our very existence – the sun – and hardly anybody noticed.
Similar to the Earth, the sun has experienced major storms over the last month. But unlike the storms on Earth, no one is talking about the sun storms. They should be, though, because storms on this ball of fire 93 million miles away can actually significantly impact life on Earth.
Over the last couple of weeks, the sun has experienced a number of solar flares, some of which have been quite powerful. Since September 4, there have been seven sun storms in the Active Region (AR) 2673, which is turning away from Earth and will soon be out of view.
On September 6, there was a X9.3 flare, the most powerful solar blast in 12 years.
According to Dr. Don Lincoln, a senior physicist at Fermilab, a solar flare “occurs when magnetic energy in the vicinity of a sunspot is released, resulting in a bright spot on the sun that takes place over a time scale of perhaps 10 minutes – or even less.”
This flare can emit a range of electromagnetic energy (aka radiation), and if this energy is directed toward the Earth, we'll notice.
The fierce bursts of radiation that result from solar flares would be extremely harmful if not for the Earth’s atmosphere. Most of the radiation is blocked from entering the atmosphere, so you personally won’t experience damage from the flares. However, there are many other ways we feel the effects of solar flares, starting with…
The coronal mass ejection (CME) – “a huge cloud of superheated solar plasma that races through space at millions of miles per hour” – can wreak havoc on our technology. Satellite systems, GPS devices and power grids are all particularly vulnerable after a solar flare.
A massive solar flare could affect your travel plans. If the electromagnetic energy from a solar flare is aimed at the Earth, airline passengers will experience a higher radiation dose than normal. While this radiation dose is not particularly dangerous, airline pilots will avoid getting too close to the poles to protect against higher radiation levels.
The recent solar flares have definitely impacted the astronauts on the International Space Station. Since they are outside most of Earth’s atmosphere, they’re at risk for harmful radiation exposure. Don’t worry – the astronauts are fine, but they slept in protected areas and were warned not to perform spacewalks following the flare.
One huge pro of solar flares? The Northern Lights are INSANE. A CME can supercharge the auroras, and can also make them visible at lower altitudes. For instance, the recent flares made it possible for residents in states like Nevada and Missouri to see the Northern Lights, which is pretty nuts.
This photo of the aurora, for instance, was taken in Ohio after the solar flare. Typically, you have to travel far north to see the lights put on a show in the sky, and people who were lucky enough to catch the Northern Lights in their hometowns can thank the sun storms for this rare treat. It's not every day you get to see magical lights dancing in the sky.
Fortunately, the recent solar flares didn’t cause any real damage on Earth, but a strong solar flare could be devastating if the CME is aimed directly at Earth. When the CME from a flare slams into the Earth’s magnetic field, it can actually distort the field’s shape. This event is called a geomagnetic storm, and it can be very dangerous.
The biggest geomagnetic storm in (somewhat) recent history occurred in 1859. Dubbed the Carrington Event (after Richard Carrington, the scientist who observed and recorded it), this storm was so massive that it resulted in visible auroras at least as far south as Cuba.
It also caused railroad rails to spark and physically shocked telegraph operators. It was serious, but not as serious as it would have been today...
13. A Modern-Day Carrington Event Would Be Devastating
If a geomagnetic storm as large as the Carrington Event were to hit Earth today, it would cause many more problems than it did back then. Why? Because our modern world is so reliant on technology, and an event of that magnitude could cause so much damage to the electric grid that it would take years to repair.
14. A Storm Of This Magnitude Would Most Likely Affect You
In 2013, Lloyd’s of London estimated the damage to the U.S. grid in the event of a geomagnetic storm like the Carrington. So what kind of damage would we be looking at? Somewhere in the range of $0.6-$2.3 trillion dollars, taking anywhere from four to 10 years to completely repair.
The report said, “The total U.S. population at risk of extended power outage from a Carrington-level storm is between 20-40 million, with durations of 16 days to 1-2 years.”
15. You Might Have Solar Flares To Thank For Your Desktop Background