Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Effect of Solar Storms

Solar flares produce high energy particles and radiation that can be dangerous to living organisms. However, at the surface of the Earth we (living things) are well protected from the effects of solar flares and other solar activity by the Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere. 

The x-rays from flares are stopped by our atmosphere well above the Earth's surface. The energetic particles produced at the Sun in flares seldom reach the Earth. When they do, the Earth's magnetic field prevents almost all of them from reaching the Earth's surface. 

The most serious effects on human activity occur during major geomagnetic storms. Major geomagnetic storms are induced by coronal mass ejections (CMEs), usually associated with flares.  A CME drives a shock wave which can continuously produce energetic particles as it propagates through interplanetary space. When a CME reaches the Earth, its impact disturbs the Earth's magnetosphere, setting off a geomagnetic storm. 

One serious problem that can occur during geomagnetic storms has been the temporary loss of electrical power over a large region. The best known case of this occurred in 1989 in Quebec. High currents in the magnetosphere induce high currents in power lines, blowing out electric transformers and power stations. This is most likely to happen at high latitudes, where the induced currents are greatest, and in regions having long power lines and where the ground is poorly conducting.

auroraThese are the most serious problems that have occurred as a result of short-term solar activity and the resulting geomagnetic storms. A positive aspect of geomagnetic storms, from an aesthetic point of view, is that the Earth's auroras are enhanced.

The damage to satellites and power grids can be very expensive and disruptive. Fortunately, this kind of damage is not frequent. Geomagnetic storms are more disruptive now than in the past because of our greater dependence on technical systems that can be affected by electric currents and energetic particles high in the Earth's magnetosphere.

Could a solar flare or CME be large enough to cause a nation-wide or planet-wide cataclysm? It is impossible to give a definitive answer to this question, but it never hurts to be prepared.

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