With the solar maximum of 2012 building up the sun is putting on quite a show for us all. The sun, our all gas jolly giant is due to reach the peak of its solar flare activity in 2013. The peak called Solar Maximum is generating a lot of interest. Scientist have calibrated instruments, created classifications, the rest of us just have to sit back and enjoy the wild ride. We actually know a lot about how the flares happen we just can’t do much about it.
Solar flares – also called Mass Coronal Ejection – consist mainly of super excited protons and electrons, heated to millions of degrees before spewing out of the sun. The individual particles don’t have enough mass to do any direct damage, no bullets from the sun, but collectively there is so much energy being sent out in the flare that they can be very dangerous. At most risk are astronauts and soon to join them space tourists. When travelling outside the Earths magnetic field the radiation – especially X-rays and Gamma rays – is extremely dangerous to living organisms, doing damage to each cell in your body. Currently no space craft are able to completely protect its crew from this radiation. Ironically Solar Flares actually cut the number of cosmic rays hitting Earth by deflecting the stream – solar wind – of particles.
As with everything scientist have a classification system that categorizes the events by strength. Five basic classes are used A, B, C, M or X with X being the highest rating. Also added to the basic class is a number 1-9 used to denote the strength within that class. This months flare event was classed an X2, powerful but not top of the scale.
The largest flare recorded occurred in 1859, this event was named the Carrington event – named after its discoverer, Richard Carrington. Although it wouldn’t have taken a genius to spot as it was visible with the naked eye – no don’t look directly at the sun. The aurora -northern lights- were visible down to the tropics, not just at the poles. It also set telegraph lines on fire, reports of wires sparking were wide spread. This event left traces of beryllium-10 in Greenland’s ice allowing scientists to confirm it’s strength as holy shit level of event.
The solar activity occurs in 11 year cycles, with the high point of the cycle called the solar maximum when you can have a few flares a day. The low ebb is called the solar minimum where the sun averages a flare week. The lowest solar minimum occurred after the max of 2000, when there were no flares for months at a time. Interestingly the solar flare of 2005 which brought down Canada’s power grid occurred during the solar minimum of that cycle.
The biggest danger for us on the planets surface is the damage that can be done to vital infrastructure. First to go would be the GPS and comms satellites in near earth orbit. Power grids and power stations are at a lesser risk, but just as in the 1859 event above ground wires are susceptible to the energy – especially the free electrons. If it’s an extreme event then even pipe lines will absorb the energy with strange results from sparking and strange noises to exploding in flames. In the most extreme cases radiation can reach the earths surface and really give you that solid tan we’re all after, apparently.
Luckily enough there are many satellites up there watching the sun’s activity, giving us up-to 15 minutes to do nothing about the oncoming event. Actually there are things that can be done and plans are in place for such an event but no one knows if we can prepare quick enough. The plan basically involves powering everything down and hiding in a cave but it’s a solid plan, no one can question the plan.
So when the next X class event happens look up at the skies and watch the greatest show on earth, you might want to buckle in for this show, it’s going to be a wild ride.
Pictures courtesy of NASA