Should we be afraid?
This morning, when I opened Facebook, there was an article with a dire warning of a solar storm that could definitely affect our Earth in a big way with loss of communications and GPS. The original article was dated the 22nd of December and the solar flares were supposed to hit the Earth starting that day. The headline was “Christmas Solar Storm to Batter Earth as Flare Blasts from Massive Hole." When I read the attached link, it was reported that it was a moderate solar storm: “And it’s whipped up a “moderately” strong geomagnetic storm that could last for several days, according to the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration”. The article, which appeared in “The Sun” news from the UK, quoted President Obama as being forced to issue a “chilling warning to the nation in preparation for devastating space weather storms EARLIER (emphasis mine) this year.”
Currently in the political environment there has been a maelstrom of comments and stories about FALSE NEWS. This article, with all the gorgeous solar photos of flares and storms as well as pictures of the wonderful aurora, should be filed under this. The dangers of violent and massive solar storms certainly should not be underestimated but in this case, it’s definitely much ado about not much and it needlessly has struck fear in the part of the population who don’t know about solar activity or at what level we should be fearful.
For those who don’t know, solar storms are a relatively common phenomenon. Our closest star, the Sun, is huge – at about 800,000 miles in diameter. Over a million Earths could fit inside the Sun! The part of the Sun that we see, the visible part, is around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5500 degrees Celsius). It is estimated by scientists that at the core of the Sun, temperatures could reach 27 million degrees Fahrenheit (15 million C)! The Sun and these temperatures are all fueled by nuclear reactions. It would take about 100 billion tons of dynamite detonated EVERY SECOND to match the Sun’s energy output!
There is a great deal of information about the Sun that I can share in forthcoming blog articles but the focus of this one is on Solar Storms.
In short, Solar Storms are created by the Sun’s magnetic activity in its magnetic field. Generally, the magnetic field is about twice that of Earth’s. However, sometimes a part of the magnetic field becomes highly concentrated in small areas where it can reach many thousands of times stronger than normal. According to Space.com, “these kinks and twists in the magnetic field develop because the sun spins more rapidly at the equator than at the higher latitudes and because the inner parts of the sun rotate more quickly than the surface.” The changes are the cause of features on the Sun’s surface that we commonly see as sunspots or eruptions that are called solar flares. Sometimes, these produce a major storm called a coronal mass ejection. Again, according to Space.com, “Flares are the most violent eruptions in the solar system, while coronal mass ejections are less violent but involve extraordinary amounts of matter — a single ejection can spout roughly 20 billion tons (18 billion metric tons) of matter into space”.
Solar Flare and Earth comparison
When we view the sun, we often see solar prominences. They appear to be loops or tongues of fire coming from the surface of the sun. They are actually loops of ionized gasses, mostly hydrogen, and they make a magnificent focal point when viewing the sun using a hydrogen alpha filter through a telescope. Sometimes those prominences develop into solar flares which can reach many thousands of miles from the surface of the sun. They, in a matter of minutes, can release enormous amounts of energy and eject material out into space. The worst case scenario for us on Earth is a combination of both a solar flare AND a coronal mass ejection AIMED TOWARD THE EARTH.
Most coronal mass ejections are NOT aimed towards earth and harmlessly blast out into space. Those that are aimed at the Earth most often can typically take one to three days to arrive and cause some of the magnificent auroras we see. They also can cause disruptions in communications. The biggest and most violent solar storms can definitely cause major disruptions in our lives including localized power outages; disruption of satellite operations, including GPS and satellite communications; disruption to high-frequency communications; increased radiation to aircrew and passengers in flight, particularly over polar regions; and further disturbances to small-part electronic systems. The biggest event of this sort occurred in 1859 long before lives became electronic dependent as we are today. Measures are being put into effect to reduce the risk by governments throughout the world.
So, as mentioned above, in the majority of cases, Solar Storms are nothing to be concerned about except that some of the bigger ones can bring the beautiful Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, for us to marvel at and appreciate.
Northern Lights over Crater Lake
If you haven’t experienced safe solar viewing of our nearest star, the Sun, do know that we have a very active Solar Viewing program at the Oregon Observatory using telescopes and filters specially designed to view the Sun. We’re open fairly frequently. Check the schedule here on the website.