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We’ve learned more about the Sun in the past 50 years than in all of recorded history, says astrophysicist, Dr. Alex Filippenko. All of life on Earth depends on the Sun, but now it appears that life can count itself quite lucky that our 4.6 billion-year-old ball of burning gas has been relatively tranquil and stable. At a recent talk at the American Astronomical Society, CU Boulder researcher Yuta Notsu discussed the possibility that a massive solar flare could strike the planet within the next 100 years. Such a giant flare could wipe out life as we know it.
Although our Sun is relatively old and slowly rotating, the researchers can’t rule out the possibility that it might occasionally behave like one of the younger distant stars scientists have observed. These stars tend to have solar flare thousands of times more powerful than what the Sun has so far exhibited in our lifetimes.
— Forbes (@Forbes) June 12, 2019
Speaking about the researchers’ findings published in The Astrophysical Journal, Notsu made a startling prediction.
“The Kepler results suggest that slowly rotating, sun-like stars can also have superflares,” Prof Notsu told the conference on Monday.
“Our study shows that superflares are rare events…” said Notsu.
In fact, the researchers say that stars like the Sun tend to produce super flare once every 2,000 to 3,000 years. That means we could be nearing such a time right now.
“…but there is some possibility that we could experience such an event in the next 100 years or so.”
— Daily Camera (@dailycamera) June 12, 2019
The Daily Star noted that the last time we saw a massive solar flare was in 1859. The event was called the Carrington Event, named after amateur astronomer Richard Carrington. The solar flare was twice as expansive as any other solar storm in 500 years.
From his private observatory outside London, he spotted the solar superstorm the morning of September 1, 1859. Carrington observed intense bright white light erupting from two sunspots. Hours later, the world would feel the impact.
History.com described what happened next:
“That night, telegraph communications around the world began to fail; there were reports of sparks showering from telegraph machines, shocking operators, and setting papers ablaze. All over the planet, colorful auroras illuminated the nighttime skies, glowing so brightly that birds began to chirp and laborers started their daily chores, believing the sun had begun rising. Some thought the end of the world was at hand, but Carrington’s naked eyes had spotted the true cause for the bizarre happenings: a massive solar flare with the energy of 10 billion atomic bombs. The flare spewed electrified gas and subatomic particles toward Earth, and the resulting geomagnetic storm—dubbed the “Carrington Event”—was the largest on record to have struck the planet.”
Around the world, from France to Australia, reports starting coming in about a celestial light show that turned night into day. The Northern lights could be seen as far south as Cuba, Honolulu, and Jamaica. Everywhere, a spectacular Aurora was seen, though some thought it was the end of the world. The light show woke up the birds, which started to sing thinking it was morning, and people in cities enjoyed late-night reading by the light of the aurora.
In South Carolina, a woman reported a biblical scene from Sullivan’s Island.
“The eastern sky appeared of a blood red color. It seemed brightest exactly in the east, as though the full moon, or rather the sun, were about to rise. It extended almost to the zenith. The whole island was illuminated. The sea reflected the phenomenon, and no one could look at it without thinking of the passage in the Bible which says, ‘the sea was turned to blood.’ The shells on the beach, reflecting light, resembled coals of fire.”
Although it frightened some people, what happened was overall harmless except for telegraph operators around the world. The surges sent showers of sparks through their lines, setting papers on fire and shocking some operators. The lines remained inoperable across North America after the first of two successive storms struck.
Now if such a solar storm happened today, you can guess it would have much more severe consequences. Our economy relies on electricity and information through the internet.
What would happen in another super solar flare?
As the storm hit the planet, high-energy sunlight would ionize the atmosphere, followed by a radiation storm that could potentially kill astronauts. Then a cloud of charged particles called a coronal mass ejection, or CME would disrupt Earth’s magnetic field.
Our economy would grind to a halt as satellite communications, global positioning systems, and the electrical grid could go down due to blown out electrical transformers.
Daniel Baker from the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics told National Geographic what he predicted after a smaller solar flare dubbed the Valentine’s Day flare in February 2011.
“Imagine large cities without power for a week, a month, or a year,” Baker said. “The losses could be $1 to $2 trillion, and the effects could be felt for years.”
Fortunately, improved forecasting technology means that we’ll most likely get a warning before another Carrington Event. Officials may have almost a full day to take action, shutting down the grid temporarily.
“In a pinch, power companies could protect valuable transformers by taking them offline before the storm strikes. That would produce local blackouts, but they wouldn’t last for long.”
In March, the bipartisan Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act was approved on April 3, 2019. It was the third attempt at passing the legislation. The move will help federal agencies coordinate a response to the next solar flare event.
See more about the Carrington event from Mustard below:
Featured image: Solar flare via Wikipedia Commons