The sun provided another reminder of its intense power and great threat to the modern world this week when a massive solar flare launched from the sun and briefly caused a disruption in shortwave radio signals that are used by airplanes and government weather stations.
Incredibly, the flare came from an area of the sun where a sunspot five times the size of the Earth resides.
The April 17 solar flare was classified by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center as an M6.7 flare, meaning it was a medium-sized flare and not as large as a larger X-class flare, which often occur during major solar storms that could cause long-term blackouts and potentially take out the power grid.
“M-class flares are a tenth the size of the most intense flares, the X-class flares,” a NASA press release stated. “The number provides more information about its strength. An M2 is twice as intense as an M1, an M3 is three times as intense, etc.”
The sunspot was visible from Earth without magnification at the time but has since rotated away from our planet.
X-class flares almost always take place at the same time as what’s called coronal mass ejections (CME), which can do major damage to technology on Earth. In July 2012, a CME large enough to take out the power grid crossed Earth’s orbit but missed the plant by about a week. X-class flares also were emitted during that time.
“Analysts believe that a direct hit by an extreme CME such as the one that missed Earth in July 2012 could cause widespread power blackouts, disabling everything that plugs into a wall socket,” a NASA news report read. “Most people wouldn’t even be able to flush their toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electric pumps.”
In 1859, an extreme CME did hit earth, leading to Northern Lights in Hawaii and the Caribbean, and causing major damage to the most sophisticated technology of the day, the telegraph. Some telegraph offices even caught fire. The storm was dubbed the “Carrington Event,” so named for the scientist who observed it.
“A similar storm today could have a catastrophic effect,” the NASA report said. “According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, the total economic impact could exceed $2 trillion or 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina. Multi-ton transformers damaged by such a storm might take years to repair.”
Said Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, “In my view the July 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859 Carrington event. The only difference is, it missed.”
Read more about the Carrington event here.
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