Scientists think it may be impossible to predict when the next massive solar flare will erupt. Whether or not Earth would be in the direct path of such a flare also largely remains a mystery. The Sun is moving towards the peak of an 11-year cycle. So far, solar storm activity has remained relatively low during the first three months of 2013.
A recent report on solar flares (or coronal mass ejections) also noted that the Sun will hit its cycle peak this fall. NASA and NOAA scientists agree that more sun spots mean more solar storms are possible, if not likely.
Sun spots are areas of magnetic fields which reach a turbulent status and prompt solar flares. Solar flares have always existed and have fluctuated in power for centuries. During the past several decades, scientists discovered that sun spots actually create the eruptions that we now commonly refer to as solar flares.
While space weather experts and scientists from both NOAA and NASA are in agreement about how solar flares are formed, their opinions about the possibility of a “cataclysmic” solar storm differ. Scientists who have warned Congress about the dire impact an Earth-directed solar flare could have on the power grid often point to the 1859 Carrington Event as proof.
The massive solar flare was named after the British astronomer who documented the impact of the coronal mass ejection. The technology of the 1800s was of course a lot more primitive than the electricity-dependent devices which are integral parts of our daily lives today.
The Carrington Event of 1859 was the largest geomagnetic storm in recorded history. The Earth-directed solar flare slammed into our atmosphere with incredible force. While the colorful auroras created by the CME may have been beautiful, the infusion of electricity wreaked havoc on the most advanced technology of the time – the telegraph.
Electricity from the solar flare set fire to both telegraph lines and papers on the shocked (literally) operator’s desks. The electrical currents flowed into telegraph wires and overloaded circuits. If a solar flare similar in strength should occur today, life as we know it would come to a screeching halt.
During the late 1980s, a significantly strong solar flares hit in Canada and caused electrical outages and computer failures. Storm Analysis Consultants owner John Kappenman said we are essentially playing Russian roulette with the Sun. Kappenman also warned that even after the 11-year cycle passes, solar flare dangers still exist.
If a Carrington Event style CMA hit again, it could potentially render several continents in total darkness. The computer components in modern vehicles could be fried as well. If transportation also ground to a halt, food would no longer be delivered to grocery stores. Medical care and the delivery of life-saving medications would also cease until the power grid could be repaired.
Power Grid Concerns
Fixing our overly-taxed and antiquated power grid would not be either an easy or quick endeavor. The equipment in hospitals, factories, stores, and our homes would also likely be rendered useless.
A North American Electric Reliability Corporation representative feels the power grid could be back online in a “week or so.” Other experts are far more pessimistic about how long it would take to replace transformers and repair fried electrical lines. If something close to the worst case scenario should occur, America could be in the dark for months and then experience “chronic shortages” for many years to come.
Evan a week or so without electricity, and access to food and medications could spawn massive civil unrest. The current near-peak solar flare activity has been quieter than previous cycle ending periods. The chance of a massive solar flare hitting Earth is rare, but not impossible. As one Space Weather Prediction Center scientist pointed out, a massive hurricane hitting the New York City area was also a rarity.
Are you concerned or prepared for a massive solar flare to hit Earth?