Throughout 2012, the sun has been in an active part of its 11-year cycle of activity. Those using telescopes equipped with special solar filters to peer at the sun – or photograph it – have seen dark sunspots dotting the sun’s surface. Space observatories have been detecting short-lived but brilliant and powerful solar flares – intense bursts of radiation and our solar system’s largest explosive events – lasting minutes to hours on the sun’s surface. Occasional, powerful coronal mass ejections, or CMEs – giant bubbles of gas and magnetic fields from the sun, containing up to a billion tons of charged particles that can travel up to several million miles per hour – have been released into the interplanetary medium. This solar material has streamed out through space, and sometimes has struck Earth. Is this dangerous? Should we be worried?
Solar storms are not dangerous to humans on Earth’s surface. These storms are awesome to contemplate, but they cannot harm our human bodies as long as we remain on the surface of Earth, where we’re protected by Earth’s blanket of atmosphere. Remember, there’s every reason to believe that storms on the sun have been happening for billions of years, since the sun and Earth came to be. If that’s so, then all life on Earth evolved under their influence.
What is the danger of a solar storm in space? Very high-energy particles, such as those carried by CMEs, can cause radiation poisoning to humans and other mammals. They would be dangerous to unshielded astronauts, say, astronauts traveling to the moon. Large doses could be fatal.
Still, solar storms – and their effects – are no problem for us on Earth’s surface. Earth’s atmosphere and magnetosphere protect our human bodies from the effects of solar flares.
On the other hand … solar storms can be dangerous to our technologies. When a coronal mass ejection, or CME, strikes Earth’s atmosphere, it causes a temporary disturbance of the Earth’s magnetic field. The storm on the sun causes a type of storm on the Earth, known as a geomagnetic storm.
The most powerful solar storms send coronal mass ejections (CMEs), containing charged particles, into space. If Earth happens to be in the path of a CME, the charged particles can slam into our atmosphere, disrupt satellites in orbit and even cause them to fail, and bathe high-flying airplanes with radiation. They can disrupt telecommunications and navigation systems. They have the potential to affect power grids, and have been known to black out entire cities, even entire regions.
People talking about power failures from solar storms always point back to March 13, 1989 – 23 years ago. A CME caused a power failure in Québec, as well as across parts of the northeastern U.S. In this event, the electrical supply was cut off to over 6 million people for 9 hours.
But it’s possible for solar storms to be even more powerful than the one that caused the 1989 Québec and U.S. northeast blackout. The largest known solar flare took place on August 28, 1859. It was observed and recorded by Richard C. Carrington, and so it’s sometimes called the Carrington Event, or sometimes the 1859 Solar Superstorm. The accompanying coronal mass ejection (CME) traveled to Earth in only 17 hours, rather than the usual three or four days. The largest recorded geomagnetic storm occurred. Aurorae, or northern lights, were seen in many parts of the world. Telegraph systems throughout Europe and North America failed.
What would happen if such a powerful solar storm occurred today? And is such a powerful solar storm likely to occur again in our lifetimes? No one knows the answers to these questions with certainty. But scientists have become increasingly aware of the possibility, especially since 2008, when Sten Odenwald and James Green published an article in the magazine Scientific American about the Carrington Event and possible consequences if such a powerful storm on the sun occurred today.
Scientists are asking more questions are solar storms and their consequences. For example, in 2012, scientists publishing in the journal Space Weather suggested that a 2001 power failure in New Zealand was caused by a solar storm. That result, if true, is particularly important because New Zealand is not at a high latitude (as Québec is, for example). It’s at a middle latitude, the same latitude as much of the United States. This 2012 study suggests that solar storm effects can reach into the more populous middle latitudes.
Scientists – for example at the Space Weather Prediction Center – continually monitor the sun, both from space and from Earth’s surface. When a solar storm with the potential to affect Earth takes place, they see it. After all, in order to affect us on Earth, the solar storm would have to happen on the side of the sun facing Earth. After such an event, it usually takes several days for the coronal mass ejection, or CME, to reach Earth. When a big CME is on its way, it is possible for satellites to shut their systems off briefly, and thereby remain safe. Likewise, with advance warning, Earth-based power grids can be reconfigured to provide extra grounding. And so on.
Are we in danger from a particularly huge solar power, perhaps on a scale of the Carrington Event? Some believe we may be. That is why governments and scientists are beginning to pay more attention to this issue, with an eye to creating systems and procedures to help withstand such powerful effects from the sun.
By the way, the current solar cycle – called Sunspot Cycle 24 by space physicists – is expected to peak in early or mid 2013, according to NASA. The number of storms on the sun was relatively high in late 2011 and has been relatively high throughout 2012. Yet this current sunspot cycle has not been a strong one. According to current predictions, it might be the weakest peak in solar activity in over 80 years.
Bottom line: Storms on the sun are a natural occurrence. They have been happening for billions of years. They are not dangerous to our human bodies on Earth’s surface. But they can affect some earthly technologies, such as power grids and satellites in orbit around Earth. If the effects of a particularly large solar storm were headed toward Earth, we would know several days in advance and have time to prepare. Scientists are beginning to become more aware of this issue, with an eye to preparing for such an event.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.