Published March 13, 2012
Colossal explosions, massive eruptions and blinding flashes -- it may sound like the apocalypse, but it’s just another day near the surface of the sun.
As part of its normal 11-year cycle, the Sun has experienced a significant spike in weather activity, which could potentially have effects on the Earth. The recent spate of abnormally large solar storms has cast a spotlight on these stellar events, and raised questions among the public about the effects and dangers associated with increased solar weather activity. Here’s a brief rundown of everything you need to know about solar storms.
What are they?
A “solar storm” is an umbrella term used to describe various kinds of weather activity from the Sun. According to Dr. Joe Gurman at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, there are at least three forms of solar activity that lead to space weather that is palpable on or near the Earth: solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs), and storms of solar energetic particles (SEPs).
A solar flare is a sudden brightening over the Sun as intense bursts of radiation are spewed into space, while a coronal mass ejection refers to the expulsion of particle clouds through the Sun’s atmosphere. These eruptions usually reach the Earth a few days after the event, though larger explosions have been known to reach us in a matter of hours.
Though not visible to the naked eye, when CME clouds reach the Earth they can interfere with the planet’s magnetic field, creating a geomagnetic storm. Similarly, the outburst from a solar flare or CME can cause an intense inflow of radiation from the Sun, known as a solar radiation storm. This radiation is usually obstructed by the earth’s atmosphere and magnetosphere, so it does not affect humans.
Are they dangerous?
Thankfully, the dangers associated with solar storms are usually minimal. According to the NOAA’s ranking of solar storms, a large solar storm could potentially burn out electronic systems in satellites, scramble GPS data and interfere with the communication systems of planes traveling near the poles. NASA’s Joe Gurman explains, “They are generally not dangerous to any of us on this side of the atmosphere, but occasionally they are associated with extremely high energy SEPs,” which can pose a radiation hazard to astronauts and airplane crews flying at high altitudes and latitudes.
What impact do they have on the Earth?
Though solar storms usually pose no threat to humans, they can still affect the earth in a variety of ways. The increased radiation assembled around the earth’s magnetic poles can interfere with radio communications, so flights passing near the poles will likely be rerouted during a solar storm. In certain extremes cases, CMEs may also cause disruption to electric power generation and distribution networks, and can even cause blackouts in some areas.