All life on Earth owes its existence to the radiant heat of the sun. But what happens when this radiation spirals out of control and billions of tons of charged solar matter are suddenly heading our way at thousands of miles per second? What happens when Earth takes a direct hit from a Solar eruption – and could a being strong enough ever destroy life on our planet as we know it?
The answers are complicated, but most scientists agree on one thing: Earth. magnetic field and an insulating atmosphere protect us extremely well from the most powerful solar explosions. While solar storms can alter radar and radio systems or knock satellites offline, the most harmful radiation is absorbed in the sky long before it hits human skin.
“We live on a planet with a very thick atmosphere… which stops all of the harmful radiation produced during a solar flare,” said Alex Young, associate director of science in the Heliophysical Sciences Division of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Even in the biggest events we’ve seen in the last 10,000 years, we see that the effect isn’t enough to damage the atmosphere so that we are no longer protected,” Young said. said in a 2011 video respond to fears that a solar flare would end the world in 2012.
Yet not all solar flares are harmless. While Earth’s magnetic field prevents widespread death from solar radiation, the sheer electromagnetic power of a flare could disrupt power grids, internet connections, and other communication devices on Earth, leading to chaos and potentially even death. . Space weather experts from NASA and other agencies take this threat seriously and closely monitor the sun for any potentially dangerous activity.
What are solar flares?
Solar flares occur when the sunMagnetic field lines become taut and twisted, causing huge, planet-sized storms of electromagnetic energy to form on the surface of the sun. We can see these storms as cold, dark spots called sunspots. Around sunspots, huge tendrils of magnetic field lines twist, twist, and sometimes snap, creating powerful bursts of energy or solar flares.
Most of the energy from a solar flare is emitted in the form of ultraviolet and x-ray light, Live Science previously reported. However, the intense energy of an eruption can also heat nearby gas in the sun’s atmosphere, launching huge blobs of charged particles known as coronal mass ejections (CME) in space. If a blazing sunspot is facing Earth, then any resulting CMEs explode straight toward us, typically reaching our planet within 15 hours to several days.
Whether or not you’ve heard of CMEs, you’ve probably experienced hundreds of them; the sun emits anywhere from one CME per week to several per day, depending on where we are in the sun’s 11-year activity cycle, according to Nasa. Most CMEs pass over our planet undetected by the general public, thanks to Earth’s powerful magnetic field, or magnetosphere.
However, the largest and most energetic CMEs can actually compress our planet’s magnetic field as they pass, resulting in what is known as a geomagnetic storm.
As electromagnetic energy from the sun pours into our magnetosphere, atoms and molecules in Earth’s atmosphere become electrically charged, creating effects that can be seen around the world. During such storms, the aurora borealis, usually visible only near the North Pole, can move until they become visible near the equator.
Radio and radar systems around the world can fail, and power grids can become overloaded and lose power. Some experts worry that a large enough CME will create a “internet apocalypseoverloading undersea internet cables and leaving parts of the world without web access for weeks or months, although that has yet to happen. Satellites and space stations, which orbit beyond protection of the Earth’s atmosphere, can also be weakened by renegade CME radiation.
Yet even the most powerful geomagnetic storm in recorded history – the Carrington Event of 1859 – had no noticeable impact on the health of humans or other life on Earth. While even stronger solar storms hit our planet before then, there is also no evidence that they impacted human health.
“Either way, eruptions don’t have a significant effect on us here on Earth,” said Doug Biesecker, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center. Stanford Solar Center. “What kind of flux would have to hit Earth to wipe us out? I don’t know the answer to that question, but obviously we’ve never even observed a solar event large enough to have measurable effects on human health.”
Our nearest star may not pose an extinction threat, but scientists suspect that other nearby stars might. When certain stars run out of fuel and die, they explode into a tremendous supernova that sends powerful radiation out into space millions of light-years away. These explosions are much, much more powerful than solar flares; if such an explosion occurred close enough to Earth, the dying star could bathe our planet in so much ultraviolet radiation that it would strip away our protective ozone layer, leaving Earth vulnerable to a barrage of charged interstellar particles.
The authors of a recent study (published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in August 2020) suspect that the death of a star less than 65 light-years from Earth may have done just that about 359 million years ago, at the end of the Devonian period (416 million to 358 million years ago). A mass extinction at the end of this period killed 70% of Earth’s invertebrates, although scientists aren’t sure what triggered it. However, an examination of extinction-era fossil spores revealed signs of ultraviolet light damage – suggesting that perhaps a star explosion triggered extinction.
Fortunately, there are no supernova candidates close enough to Earth to pose such a threat any time soon, the study authors reassured. We only have to worry about our hot little sun – and our atmosphere keeps us on the friendly side of that star.
Originally posted on Live Science.
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