Our star, the sun, is currently going through a solar cycle that is creating a massive black spot on its surface, known as a coronal hole, and it’s expected to trigger solar storms that could wreak havoc with electronic systems here on Earth.
This solar phase is relatively mild and shouldn’t bother earthlings too much, but experts fear a larger solar storm could potentially send civilization back to the dark ages, and there’s not much we can do to stop it.
NASA and its partner agency NOAA have assigned the Solar Dynamics Observatory to permanently stare at the sun so scientists can monitor its activity and alert authorities about upcoming solar storms, according to NASA’s website.
“In an increasingly technological world, where almost everyone relies on cellphones, and GPS controls not just your in-car map system, but also airplane navigation and the extremely accurate clocks that govern financial transactions, space weather is a serious matter.”
The term solar storm is a bit generic, but it refers to both solar flares and a coronal mass ejection (CME).
Solar flares can’t physically harm the Earth, but the radiation produced can play havoc with the technical equipment that has become such a part of our daily lives like GPS devices, radio signals, and airline communication. CMEs on the other hand, are like plasma cannon balls fired by the sun; if one were to strike the earth it could easily knock out the world’s power grid.
That’s why NASA spends millions of dollars every year to monitor the sun and issue early warnings if they see a solar flare or CME developing.
Some experts, however, worry that a really big solar storm could knock out our communications satellites and electrical grids, rip a hole in the ozone layer that could damage crops, cause trillions in damage, and send civilization back to the stone age.
The solar storm of 2012 that almost sent us back to a post-apocalyptic Stone Age | Ex https://t.co/4I4yODyXOI— زيكا (@LucNex) June 30, 2016
In 1859, a solar storm now referred to as the Carrington Event, triggered fires, ignited telegraph machines across North America, and also produced beautiful auroras in the night sky, according to Tech Insider.
“Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire. Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted.”
In 1989, a relatively small CME knocked out power for some 6 million Canadians for nine hours when it fried the Hydro-Quebec power network. Then, in 2012 a solar super storm twice as big as the 1989 event, narrowly missed the Earth, thanks to the vast expanse of outer space, NASA physicist Daniel Baker wrote in a press release.
“If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces. If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.”
In 2014, NASA went public with information that the Earth has a 12 percent chance of being struck by a massive solar storm sometime in the next decade. To protect civilization from a damaging solar storm that could send us all back to the stone age, the White House started working with the National Science and Technology Council in 2015 to develop a National Space Weather Action Plan.
For private citizens, the Department of Homeland Security recommends preparing a space weather emergency kit, similar to an earthquake or tornado kit it would include emergency food and water along with batteries and flashlights.
For those solar enthusiasts who really want to be prepared for the next solar storm, NASA has made their Space Weather Prediction Center, where the space agency monitors upcoming solar storms, available for the public’s use.
Where will you be when the next solar storm strikes the Earth?
[Photo by NASA via AP Images]