High-energy particles and waves of harmful cosmic radiation up to 100 million Kelvin could be bombarding Earth right now, and we have no idea. Luckily our atmosphere protects us from these waves called solar flares. Although solar flares are not a topic of everyday conversation, they can have an enormous impact on our lives.
The sun itself is a bit of mystery. Scientists do not fully understand the sun outside of it being made up of hot plasma and magnetic fields. When the sun’s magnetic fields become too hot they erupt from the surface causing a solar flare. Solar flares are composed of light and gases and burst from the sun’s surface ejecting particles deep into space. Once they make contact with the Earth’s surface, the particles create a brief light show: the Northern Lights.
Most of us don’t regularly think about the sun or how events on its surface can affect life on Earth. In fact, most of us take the sun for granted until we get sunburn at the beach. However, its bursts of particles do impact life on Earth.
Solar flares can affect individuals traveling in outer space or living at high altitudes. The radiation from solar flares can be as irritating as a sunburn, but it is only truly harmful if someone is exposed to a extremely heavy dose. Exposure to high amounts of radiation from solar flares could lead to skin cancer.
Solar flares can also affect telecommunications on Earth. Many major communication satellites don’t have protection from solar flares. These satellites hover unprotected just outside Earth’s atmosphere. Geomagnetic storms created by solar flares can damage these satellites. The satellites’ electrons can become ionized leading to electrical shortages. Geomagnetic storms can also disrupt communication between satellites and the Earth. If your cell phone reception becomes spotty during a solar flare event, solar flares are the likely culprit.
Solar flares don’t cause too much commotion on earth but coronal mass ejections (CME) do. A CME is another type of solar event. It differs from a solar flare because it is made of magnetized particles and does not contain light. Mike Hapgood, from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, is quoted in the L.A. Times explaining that “There’s an association between flares and coronal mass ejections, but it’s a relationship we don’t quite understand scientifically. Sometimes the CME launches before the flare occurs, and vice versa.”
Knowing this, it becomes clear that we still have a lot to learn about this category of solar event. Currently, most of what we know is how CMEs impact life on Earth. If a CME hits earth it can heavily disrupt us. Compasses can fail because the magnetic poles are effected. Electrical systems can become damaged as a result. In a global culture that relies heavily on technology, such facts are justifiably disconcerting. If a solar flare with a CME hit Earth, the damage could knock out our communication systems taking weeks, even months, to repair. Even worse, imagine everything powered by electricity dying at once. How would we know what to do next? Admittedly, this is slightly hyperbolic because not all areas on earth would lose power. The only way this could happen is if the solar storm was massive in size.
Such possibilities make solar flares easy fodder for the imaginations of conspiracy theorists. Oliver Willis on VeteransToday.com, writes about leaked government documents from whistleblow Edward Snowden that purport that remote viewers employed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have predicted that a series of solar flares will kill hundreds of millions of people. The documents allege that governments around the world have been quietly preparing for the inevitable global famine that would result from such a large solar storm. We are all still here, so these dire predictions appear baseless and silly. That said, it seems solar flares can also produce tabloid journalism promoting fear on Earth.
From tabloid stories to cellphone signals, these cosmic events happening millions of miles away do affect us. Most importantly, they remind us of the vastness of our universe and of our part in it.
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Calumet College of St. Joseph
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