Solar Eruptions Hit Home
Sep 5th, 2011 | By Andrew | Category: Energy, Solar, Top Headline | Print This Article
The sun is entering a period of increased activity, and massive solar eruptions are beginning to wreak havoc on modern technology. A recent solar eruption disrupted radio communication in China, and there is concern that further eruptions could disrupt daily life on a wider scale.
Scientists have long predicted that solar storms could disrupt global communications and affect telephone and power networks. A powerful solar eruption known as the Carrington Event struck in 1859, causing fires and shorting out telegraph wires. Imagine how much more powerful this disruption would be with modern infrastructure; with communications and power shorted out, global chaos would ensue. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences estimates that the disruptions and destruction caused by such storms could exceed $2 trillion and require years to rebuild all affected infrastructure and systems.
According to NASA, the Carrington Event was a solar storm of such magnitude that the skies were filled with red auroras, compass needles pointed in the wrong direction, and electric current passed through the Earth’s topsoil. The storm was caused by a coronal mass ejection that hit the Earth’s magnetic field with such intensity that it created vibrations and sent currents through both the ground and atmosphere. Luckily, solar storms of this magnitude are rare events.
Solar Storms Explained
The sun has an activity cycle that spans eleven years. Solar eruptions vary in strength depending on the point in the sun’s cycle, and its activity has been steadily increasing. Experts believe the cycle’s peak may occur in 2013 or 2014, with stronger storms and more potent effects expected during that time.
The sun produces two types of solar storms: solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Both types of storms are caused by disruptions of the sun’s magnetic field. Solar flares and CMEs are both capable of causing massive problems for the high-tech systems that our modern civilization depends on.
Solar flares send bursts of radiation in the form of waves of photons into space. They are categorized with three different strength levels: Class C, Class M, and Class X. If these erupt toward Earth, they can have a powerful effect on communications, as seen by the event in China. The eruption that affected Chinese radio waves was a Class X, one of the most powerful solar flares possible.
As the sun is nearby in stellar terms, particles from solar flares can reach the Earth in a matter of minutes. The photons travel so rapidly through space that little warning is possible if this type of eruption is detected. Flares can also cause technical difficulties for satellite systems, which can disrupt global services such as communications and GPS along with high-frequency radio waves.
Coronal mass ejections are fiercer storms. The ejections send giant clouds of plasma billowing into space along the path of the eruption, and this can cause more severe consequences for us on Earth. The particles take longer to travel from the sun to the Earth, but they react more forcefully with our planet than solar flares do.
The Carrington Event is a prime example of a CME. The storm was so powerful that it caused the Earth’s magnetic field to shake, sending geo-magnetically induced currents through the soil and atmosphere. Stronger current such as these have the potential to overload circuits and short out transformers.
A more recent example of this type of storm hit Canada’s province of Quebec on March 13, 1989. The storm was not as severe as the Carrington Event was, but it disrupted the province’s power grid for more than nine hours. The storm also damaged transformers in three countries and caused numerous power anomalies across the United States. A series of milder CMEs that hit in October 2003 caused a blackout in Sweden and damaged transformers in another country.
As this type of eruption can directly affect the earth’s magnetic field, CMEs have the potential to disrupt planetary communications and power grids. While issues such as disrupted communications are difficult to prepare for, it is possible to stock up and be ready for widespread power outages and other damage.
Purchasing a generator or having a power source not connected to the grid will be essential to limit the amount of time your family must go without electricity. Having electricity-free backups, such as a fireplace or wood stove for heat, a camp stove for cooking, and candles and kerosene lanterns for light, will help you ride out long-term power and communications interruptions.
Solar storms are a serious and continuing problem for everyone, in every country on Earth. Staying informed about the solar cycle and expected storms will allow you to prepare and stock up on necessary items before storms hit, thus minimizing their effects on your household.
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