Over the past month it has been reported that several large solar flares (or coronal mass ejections) have sent a mass of charged particles in the towards us indicating that after an extended period of relatively low activity, the sun is beginning to ‘wake up’. Accompanying these reports in the tabloids have been the generic sensationalist stories saying that the sun is going to let out the ‘big one’ and wipe us all out be it through the amount of charged particles hitting the Earth inflicting a high level of radiation upon us or that these will cut all of our electricity and we will be thown back into a pre 20th century darkness. Not only have the tabloids been jumping on the end-of-the-world-due-to-a-solar-flare scenario, films such as 2012 and ‘the knowing’ have used this as a major storyline. However, how much truth is in these stories and films? What will increased solar activity mean to you and I?
Solar flares occur from a release of stored magnetic energy from sunspot activity, as a result charged particles are thrown out into space. These charged particles can affect and potentially shut down some of the many satellites orbitting the Earth having a profound affect on the way we go about our general day to day tasks. Understandably the different types of satellite such as, navigation, military, communication will effect different people in different ways. Periods of high solar activity occur on average every 11 years, the last time there was a peak the world was a very different place and we weren’t so dependent on technology. With this in mind we can only make predictions on smaller storms as to how badly solar flares will affect our satellites, and with these smaller flares being taken into account some of the predicted damage may not be so great. It’s understandable that some satellites may go down but newer ones should have precautions incase of these flares. So for how this will affect us we can initally say that the impact may not be that great but may mess up our satellite tv or our sat navs forcing us to use a map!
Following on from the effects caused by solar flares to satellites a major associated issue that could arise under the events of large scale solar flares is that of our communication systems ‘going down’. A loss of satellite communications can eliminate some pathways to communication around the world and the communications received as a result of satellite TV. Large solar flares and the stream of charged particles that emanate from them can also have an effect with long range radiowave communication as well. Communications that use the atmosphere to transmit over large distances can sufffer large amounts of interference due to extra charges and energy in the atmosphere. This also can apply to mobile phone communications that use microwaves to transmit data. It was also reported in the solar maximum in the 1970s that long range telephone communications were brought down by a solar flare in Illinois, US showing the effect that flares can have on facilities that are based on earth as well as in space.
3. Electrical Grids
In the last solar maximum, Quebec in Canada was hit pretty bad by a solar flare and as a result six million of it’s inhabitants were plunged into darkness as the power grids were affected. Understandably back in the 80s this caused a problem however it can be expected that if this occurred in the next solar maximum it will affect us a lot more due to our greater reliance on electricity in a gadget driven world. This will cause turmoil not only in the home but potentially businesses as well, as computer systems and communication lines go down due to a loss of power. This overall can also have a major affect on the economy.
…and finally a good one
Aurora (otherwise known as Northern/Southern Lights) occur as charged particles emitted from the surface of the sun come into contact with the magnetic field around the Earth. They get trapped in regions known as the Van Allen belts which ‘focus’ particles towards the poles leading to the areas in Scandinavia for example where the Aurora occurr. The charged particles interact with Oxygen and Nitrogen in the atmosphere which through excitation and relaxation of molecules/atoms lead to the characeristic red and green glow of the Aurora. With increased solar activity comes increased Aurora ativity which when intense can happen further south, as a result more will have the opportunity to see this sight.
All in all, we will not be wiped out by a solar flare in the coming years as some would like to believe, however it is aparent that some measures need to be taken in order to lessen any damage to technology and the economy on Earth. Measures have already been taken to protect satellites so hopefully with measures taken to protect power grids the coming storm will cause us less trouble than it has the potential to deal out. And even if we are all plunged into darkness, at least light pollution won’t get in the way of the Aurora!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GX_hoYYR3E4 there’s also an excuse to post a song I like called Solarwinds