The Sun, although seemingly peaceful at all times, can actually become quite violent when it suddenly spews radiation and plasma in random directions. These solar flares and coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, can have disastrous consequences for human civilization if they were to hit Earth and under special circumstances. As such, we will explore how they work and the extent of destruction they could cause.
How Are Solar Storms Caused?
Due to the Sun’s extremely hot temperatures, atoms are ripped apart into nuclei and electrons, all of which flow together inside of plasma. This plasma is shaped and moved around by the Sun’s magnetic field in an erratic way. So, as the plasma bends and flows around itself, magnetic “knots,” containing massive amounts of energy, are created. When these knots break, all the stored energy explodes outwards into the solar system in two forms: solar flares and CMEs.
What Are They?
Solar flares are intense bursts of energy & radiation that travel through the solar system at the speed of light, sweeping up protons in space and accelerating them to enormous speeds. CMEs launch millions to billions of tons of plasma from the Sun’s atmosphere at speeds up to nine million km/h. Both explosions can be as powerful as billions of nuclear bombs.
What Happens When They Hit Earth?
Most of the time, when solar flares and CMEs hit Earth, nothing happens. The dangerous radiation from solar flares is absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere before they can reach the surface. On the other hand, all the plasma from CMEs is deflected by the Earth’s magnetic field.
However, if a CME is large and fast enough, it causes a shockwave that forcibly compresses the Earth’s magnetic field when it hits the planet. On top of this, if that CME’s magnetic field is aligned with the Earth’s perfectly, the two magnetic fields will merge. Eventually, this will result in all of the CME’s energy releasing violently towards the Earth, creating a geomagnetic storm.
What Are The Implications of a Geomagnetic Storm?
Humans themselves will not be affected by a geomagnetic storm and all of its energy because, well, we’re made out of flesh. However, in the case of machines, it’s a very different story. The energy from a CME can cause currents in power grids that can either shut them down, or completely destroy them. This would plunge the world into darkness because replacing/fixing all affected systems would take 4-10 years. Now, this estimate is in developed countries. Imagine how long it could take in undeveloped countries like Bolivia; we may not even be able to have electricity for decades! Although this seems catastrophic, there’s an even worse type of storm the Sun can cause: superflares.
Superflares are explosions hundreds to thousands of times stronger than the strongest storms that have been observed in the solar system. If they were to hit Earth, power grids wouldn’t be the only things to be destroyed. Cellphones, computers, navigation systems, and pretty much everything that runs on electricity will cease to function in an instant. Since we depend so much on these technologies in our daily lives, a large majority of humanity would think of this event as world-ending. Additionally, restarting civilization as it once was would take decades.
Should You Worry?
No. The chances of a world-ending CME or superflare hitting Earth are extremely slim, with a 0.46% to 1.88% chance of a catastrophic CME occurring in the next decade.