The Danger of Solar "Super-Storms"
Watch out George Lucas fans, a Death Star may be in our horizons — and one would only have to look as far as our nearest stellar neighbor: the Sun.
According to Mr. Ashley Dale of the University of Bristol, solar "super-storms" pose an imminent threat to the earth by disabling electricity and communication systems — or worse.
Thus, the celestial body that illuminates the world may very well be responsible for sending it into darkness.
In this month's issue of PhysicsWorld, Mr. Dale writes: "Without power, people would struggle to fuel their cars at petrol stations, get money from cash dispensers or pay online. Water and sewage systems would be affected too, meaning that health epidemics in urbanized areas would quickly take a grip, with diseases behind centuries ago soon returning."
Solar storms are caused by violent eruptions of plasma and magnetic fields into space. Singlehandedly, these coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are the most energetic events in our solar system and amount to 10^22 kJ of energy — or the equivalent of 10 billion Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs exploding simultaneously. CMEs consisting of a trillion kilograms of charged particles are subsequently hurled at the earth at 3000 km/s and, if they display enough energy, rip through Earth's protective magnetic field. The event induces surges of electrical currents toward the ground, frying electrical components in its wake.
And if it sounds shocking that the object responsible for life can cause so much destruction, here is some history for you. It has happened in the past, and it will happen again.
In 1859, Richard Carrington recorded the largest "super-storm" after observing a solar flare — a definitive precursor to each event. Today, scientists expect an event to occur every 150 years — and we are overdue. Although our estimates are imprecise, the truth is the Sun is getting brighter. The Faint Young Sun Paradox means that the Sun's luminosity is increasing with age, and with that comes unpredictability.
Mr. Dale adds: "As a species, we have never been more vulnerable to the volatile mood of our nearest star, but it is well within our ability, skill and expertise as humans to protect ourselves."
Dale is part of a team dubbed SolarMAX, an international task force sent to study the storms and minimize their impacts. Together, SolarMAX has developed a defense strategy involving 16 lunchbox-sized cube satellites to detect solar storms and protect Earth's magnetic field. After all, Earth's magnetic field shields its inhabitants from these solar storms that carry within lethal amounts of radiation.
Without the development of Earth's magnetic field, life as we know it would not exist — and we are beginning to acquire the knowledge to protect our home.
Solar flare image via Shutterstock.
Continue reading at The University of Bristol.