Tag Archives: space weather

The Sun: It Gives Us Life But Can Also Take It Away

Video: YouTube

The Sun, without it we could not survive. It is the be all and end all of life on planet Earth. We should take note though that although the sun gives us life then it can also take it away. The sun is the most destructive force the Earth has to deal with. It’s a ball of nuclear fusion, a nuclear manufacturing plant some 93m miles from Earth.

The same sun that warms us and gives life to almost everything that grows on the planet wiped out the atmosphere of Mars several billion years ago. We are closer to the sun than Mars but we still have our magnetic field…which protects our atmosphere.

Temperatures on the sun exceed 27 million degrees Fahrenheit in the core of the sun, that’s 15 million degrees Celsius…pretty warm by anybody’s standards!

Scientists call the area of space we occupy ‘The Goldilocks Zone’. Not too hot, not too cold, it’s just right for plant and animal life to thrive.

Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) are extremely violent ejections of plasma, gas and electromagnetic radiation that spews out from the surface of the sun with the power of a billion hydrogen bombs and these ejections can send ten billion tons of matter across billions of miles.

NASA published this picture and added the Earth in to show the scale. CME’s can be tens of millions of miles across, thousands of times the size of the earth. The picture is a CME that erupted on 31st august 2012 and left the sun at 900miles per second. It hit the earths magnetic field three days later but it wasn’t a square on hit, just a glancing blow which was a good job considering it’s size.


Image: NASA

 About 30 CME’s hit Earth every year with most of them skimming off the planet’s atmosphere. The was majority of them miss completely. A massive CME hit happens on average once every century.

A coronal mass ejection can affect various systems in different ways. In extreme cases, electrical currents can be induced in long metal structures, like power lines and oil/gas pipelines. Additionally, the high-speed charged particles of the CME can cause the buildup of electrical charge in metal structures in satellites; such buildups of electrical charge can be damaging to the sensitive electronic systems common in telecommunications satellites. Because of the possibility of damage to these vital and very expensive systems, advance knowledge of the likelihood of a CME is potentially helpful to the operators of such systems. (source)

The larger solar storm on record happened on September 1-2 1859. Excerpts from a National Geographic article:

Dubbed the Carrington Event, after British astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed the megaflare and was the first to realize the link between activity on the sun and geomagnetic disturbances on Earth.

During the Carrington Event, northern lights were reported as far south as Cuba and Honolulu, while southern lights were seen as far north as Santiago, Chile.

In addition, the geomagnetic disturbances were strong enough that U.S. telegraph operators reported sparks leaping from their equipment—some bad enough to set fires.

In 1859, such reports were mostly curiosities. But if something similar happened today, the world’s high-tech infrastructure could grind to a halt.

Solar storms aimed at Earth come in three stages, not all of which occur in any given storm.

First, high-energy sunlight, mostly x-rays and ultraviolet light, ionizes Earth’s upper atmosphere, interfering with radio communications. Next comes a radiation storm, potentially dangerous to unprotected astronauts.

Finally comes a coronal mass ejection, or CME, a slower moving cloud of charged particles that can take several days to reach Earth’s atmosphere. When a CME hits, the solar particles can interact with Earth’s magnetic field to produce powerful electromagnetic fluctuations.

Of particular concern are disruptions to global positioning systems (GPS), which have become ubiquitous in cell phones, airplanes, and automobiles.

But the big fear is what might happen to the electrical grid, since power surges caused by solar particles could blow out giant transformers. Such transformers can take a long time to replace, especially if hundreds are destroyed at once.

The eastern half of the U.S. is particularly vulnerable, because the power infrastructure is highly interconnected, so failures could easily cascade like chains of dominoes.

If the Earth took a direct hit from a large fast moving CME the damage would be colossal. Society whilst not getting blasted back to the storage, would be set back decades. Life would be for us as it was for the pioneers, as it was for our ancestors that lived before the Industrial Revolution and the onset of ‘the electrical age’. Every single piece of technology we currently use and in many cases rely on, would be rendered useless over huge areas of the planet.

Recovery from such an event would take many years. Electricity supply, communications, commerce, education, healthcare, industry, agriculture  and everything else we take for granted in our everyday lives would cease in the affected area. Yet in 1859, just 157 years ago life pretty much carried on as it did before the Carrington Event.

Such is our dependence on technology.

Take Care