Solar Flares: Should we worry?

Sun eruptions are predicted to peak in 2013

Solar Flares: Should we worry?Courtesy by NASA
Courtesy by NASA

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As we all know the sun is one of the key elements for life in our world, and on the other hand it can also be viewed as a threat to our civilization as well, which the temperamental star is capable of explosive acts of energy. Once every 11 years our sun reaches a maximum level of activity and releases great outbursts of energy known as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which are a massive burst of solar winds and magnetic fields.

The solar cycle was discovered in 1843 by German astronomer Samuel Heinrich Schwabe, who after 17 years of observations noticed a periodic variation in the average number of sunspots seen from year to year on the solar disk. We are now in the middle of one of those cycles, and sun activity has been intensive in 2012, and is expected to continue like this for most of 2013.

Solar storms trigger the aurora borealis or “northern lights”, and depending on the intensity of the impact on our planet, then the further south they will be able to be seen.

If you live in San Diego and you happen to look out the window and see these lights, then we all might have something to worry about.

What exactly is a solar flare? Well according to Wikipedia, it is a sudden brightening observed over the sun's surface or the solar limb, which is interpreted as a large energy release. “Radiation emitted by solar flares can affect Earth's ionosphere and disrupt long-range radio communications.”

The main hazard of massive solar flares is that they can trigger geomagnetic storms that have been known to knock out electric power for extended periods of time. That is a scientific fact, incidents recorded are numerous: the Carrington Super Flare (1859), the New York Railroad Storm (1921), Quebec Blackout (1989), and one of the largest solar storms ever recorded, the Halloween Flare (2003), an extremely unusual X45-class flare.

As mankind becomes ever more dependent on technology, the chances increase that a large solar storm could seriously impact civilization. A 2009 NASA study raised concerns about the possible catastrophic damage a large solar storm could inflict to America. The mega storm could severely damage the power grid, leading to long-term power outages that could affect water and sewer operations, food distribution, transportation and communications.

As we all know the sun is one of the key elements for life in our world, and on the other hand it can also be viewed as a threat to our civilization as well, which the temperamental star is capable of explosive acts of energy. Once every 11 years our sun reaches a maximum level of activity and releases great outbursts of energy known as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which are a massive burst of solar winds and magnetic fields.

Above: What if New York Railroad Storm occurred today? A U.S. map of vulnerable transformers with areas of potential system collapse encircled.

The bottom line is that there is nothing we can do to stop this catastrophic event in case it happens, but also it might not happen at all. Most of solar storms are not on the direct path of planet earth, also the intensity necessary is above the average, so at some point, it’s just a matter of luck.

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