We’re due to feel the force of a strong solar flare sometime soon. The kind that only come along ‘once in a generation’. What does that mean and what will be the impact?
Coronal Mass Ejections
CME’s for short, or solar flares, are clouds of charged particles and look like this one recorded by NASA on 1st August 2010:
These out-pourings of immense energy from the Sun travel at over 1000km/s, taking just over 2 days to reach our planet. These flares follow the Sun’s 11 year cycle, such that in periods of low Sunspot activity (solar minimum) there are few if any; in periods of high Sunspot activity (solar maximum) there is a great increase in frequency of flares.
Up until about a year ago, the Sun had been very inactive… that seems to be changing rapidly as the video above indicates, and therefore the risk to Earth increases. Solar activity is expected to peak sometime between 2011 and 2013.
What damage will these solar flares do?
CMEs that emerge from the Sun in our direction can interact with our own magnetic field to beautiful effect and produce stunning auroral displays.
However, strong solar storms also have the potential to wreck havoc with instruments such as satellites that we have in space; and closer to home, with our everyday electronics and communication infrastructure from mobile phones to hospital equipment, computers to aircraft. That of course has to be significant threat – blackouts, loss of business, inability to travel, loss of life, political instability…
What can be done to reduce the risk?
Well, governments around the world are aware of the threat posed and have been meeting with scientists to develop emergency plans and back-ups. Also, the equivalent of surge protectors could be placed on the transformers connected to our electricity grid to stop the networks from ‘frying’.
There’s probably not much the average person on the street can do, other than keep a watch on the Space Weather or lead a simpler, tech-free existence 🙂