Earth hit by space hurricane as solar flare strikes

Solar storms produce beautiful light effects when they hit Earth’s magnetic field © Getty Images

The worst solar storm in eight years has smashed into the planet’s magnetosphere, causing satellite failures and computer glitches. The upside? Things could have been much much worse.

This week, the Earth has been battered by the worst storm in nearly a decade. And yet – apart from a few scientists and electrical engineers – almost nobody on the planet will have noticed. Why? Because this was no conventional hurricane of rain and wind; it was a storm that blew in from the surface of the Sun.

Like most stars, the Sun emits a constant stream of highly charged subatomic particles and radiation which flows through the solar system. This is known as the ‘solar wind’.

Every so often, though, the boiling seas of superheated plasma that make up the surface of the sun erupt in a great white hot bubble: a ‘Coronal Mass Ejection’ or, to non-scientists, a solar flare.

These flares send billions of tonnes of radioactive matter jetting out into the solar system at speeds of up to 3,200 kilometres per second. The solar wind becomes a solar storm.

On Tuesday this week, one of these storms hit Earth. For an unprotected human, out in space, the impact of a solar storm could be deadly. But, down on the planet’s surface, we are protected by an invisible magnetic shield produced by the Earth’s molten iron core.

Although we are saved from getting a deadly dose of radiation, solar storms can still do a great deal of damage as geomagnetic activity high in the Earth’s atmosphere causes electrical surges in wires, pylons and even water pipes down below. This week’s storm is thought to have caused computer glitches and interfered with satellites in orbit overhead.

It could, however, have been much worse. Although this was the worst storm since 2005, there are much more severe storms on record. In 2003 and 1989, solar storms overloaded power cables, causing major blackouts. Back in 1921 and 1859, solar storms hit that were so severe they sparked fires at the end of telegraph lines.

If such a storm hit now, when electrical wires blanket most of the Earth, the consequences could be devastating. In the worst case scenario, a solar storm could crash global communications and fry the world’s power grids – disrupting the complex systems on which so much of the modern world has come to rely.

Death star

Sunny days make most people cheerful. The sun warms us up; it makes our crops grow; it banishes the cold and dark of night. The idea that our friendly local star could cause a planet-wide catastrophe seems absurd.

But some scientists say we need to start taking measures to prepare for the worst. It would cost hundreds of millions of pounds to make the Earth safe from solar storms but, if we don’t take action now, the same Sun which nurtures human civilisation could one day end up putting out the lights.

You Decide

  1. Should governments spend millions preparing for solar storms?
  2. Would there be any upsides to a life without modern technology?

Activities

  1. Write a story describing the consequences of a week-long, worldwide power blackout. Would there be chaos, or would human ingenuity pull through?
  2. Create a poem, song or piece of art inspired by the power of the Sun.

Some People Say...

“Without modern technology, humanity would be doomed.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So I really need to start being afraid of the sun?
There’s no need to panic just yet. We’ll have a little warning before any really massive solar storms hit.
That’s a relief!
Well... To tell the truth, it would only be a few days warning. There wouldn’t be much we could do about it. And solar activity is expected to peak in 2013.
And would a few days without power really be so bad?
A really bad storm, it is feared, might burn out circuits all over the place, leaving the world without power for more than just a few days. Food in refrigerators would rot. Life support systems in hospitals would fail. Control panels in nuclear plants might short circuit. Things could go downhill fast.

Word Watch

Plasma
A state of matter similar to gas but with slightly different characteristics. Plasma is found in fluorescent lights, lightning bolts and plasma TVs, among other places.
Deadly
Solar storms bring elevated levels of radiation: enough to cause sickness or death. Astronauts in the International Space Station in orbit around the Earth have to retreat into a specially shielded room during severe solar storms.
Iron core
Fully a third of the Earth’s mass is iron, much of which is in a hot, molten ball called the Earth’s core. This iron content allows the Earth to function as a giant magnet, flying through space.
Telegraph
Telegraph systems allowed for long distance communication before the coming of the telephone. Simple electrical currents were sent down long wires, turned on and off to create the short and long signals of Morse code.

Subjects

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