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How A Severe Solar Storm Can Wreack Havoc On Our Planet?

This article on solar storms is a guest article by Anja Sjöström, an IB diploma student from Switzerland.

Solar Storms

Even though the Sun is situated about 150 million kilometers away from Earth, its activity may impact our planet, its magnetosphere, as well as space weather on a larger scale. The Sun’s plasma, the highly ionized gas formed by hydrogen and helium ions and the delocalized electrons which were liberated as hydrogen and helium were ionized, is what constitutes most of our star.

However, this plasma is far from being stable and is constantly being pushed around in cycles. This movement of charged ions in the plasma produces strong magnetic fields, and their corresponding induced currents, the heliospheric current. This creation of magnetic fields that are constantly being kept alive by the movement of plasma is a process known as the solar dynamo.

Image by E. F. Dajka

However, the dynamo is not constant which leads to magnetic knots, a blockage in the flow of plasma which yields huge build-ups of energy. These areas are known as sunspots and this heightened concentration of magnetic flux hinders the transfer of thermal energy (convection) leading to reduced surface temperature. It is in the surroundings of those areas where solar flares occur ejecting plasma and radiation into space.

As such, when these magnetic knots break, a giant electromagnetic pulse occurs and there is a sudden release of magnetic energy leading to plasma ejection which can take on many forms and lead to consequences varying in intensity and gravity.

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Depending on the intensity of the solar flare, they may give rise to coronal mass ejections (CMEs). This phenomenon sends tidal waves of high energy radiation against which particles will accumulate. These streams of charged particles bombard the Earth’s magnetosphere, the area around Earth in which charged particles are able to interact with its magnetic field, and eventually disrupt Earth’s magnetic field in a geomagnetic storm.

The process unfolds as such: the shock wave compresses Earth’s magnetic field which becomes stretched into a long tail. When the energy stored in this tail becomes too high to contain, it snaps back into place, releasing all of the energy towards Earth.

What threat do solar storms pose?

The impacts of the previously described geomagnetic storms are felt on all machinery made out of metal or wire, conducting or transforming electricity. Such releases of energy may induce currents in Earth’s power grids which may shut them down or completely destroy them. In addition, even before reaching Earth, such disruptions interfere with our activity on Earth when they encounter machinery operating beyond our atmospheres such as space crafts, space stations, or satellites, blocking radio signals between the former and Earth.

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An artist’s impression of what a coronal mass ejection might look like. Credit: NASA/Steel Hill

However, depending on the intensity of the flares and CMEs, the impact may be contained to mere interferences with satellites, mitigating its impact upon Earth due to atmospheric deflection and protection. More than often, the plasma and streams of particles are deflected towards Earth’s poles to then slowly fall down into the atmosphere. A phenomenon which can be observed from Earth, better known as aurora borealis, or the Northern lights.

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In the case of a severe solar storm, communication and GPS systems would start failing, power grid transformers would start melting out, sending Earth into a global power outage with unprecedented consequences in our day and age due to our dependence on electricity and technology. As a non-exhaustive list, food preservation would no longer be possible, cooling and heating neither. Most economic activity would have to be suspended, supply chains would break down, and naturally, the internet would be down and our planet would temporarily submerge into darkness. However, the chances of such an event occurring remain low.

Solar Storm
Solar storms can wreck havoc on Earth

Although we cannot control space weather, but merely predict it to a certain degree of precision and with a certain delay, NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) allows us, by studying particles coming from the sun, to alert institutions and population on Earth, with a lee-way of about 30 minutes, in case of threatening solar activity. As such, we would be able to take the necessary measures in due time, mitigating the devastating impacts upon our activities on Earth. Measures would include the opening of extra power lines to more efficiently dissipate overflows, or even a temporary unplugging or disconnection of transformers at the time of the passing of the storm.

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Past events

In July 2012, Earth experienced a close miss. A solar flare resulting in a powerful CME occurred a week too late in order to have struck Earth, majorly disrupting life on Earth. This event could well have turned out to mirror what had happened about a century and a half before that.

The Northern Lights
The Northern lights

It was then, in 1859, that we experienced our most recent solar hurricane known as the Carrington Event. In comparison to today, the impact was mitigated as the only technology widely used was telegraph pylons. However, the consequences were nonetheless disruptive. Many pylons in use were lit on fire and telegraph operators shocked due to induced currents caused by the geomagnetic storm, the interaction of the coronal mass ejection with the Earth’s magnetosphere, and the Northern lights and auroras were seen as far into the equator as the Caribbean.

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