June 24, 2018

Death by Superflare?

A close runner-up in the pantheon of cosmic catastrophes is a killer flare courtesy of our Sun. While this may not be as lethal as a giant space rock, its also much more likely over the span of our short lifetimes. But what is the exact potential hazard posed by this threat? What has happened in the past? And what can be done about it?



To be sure, a modern day flare scenario based on the Carrington super-flare of 1859 would be an extremely bad thing. The Sun at its 11-year peak is capable of producing energetic bursts capable of severely damaging electronics, upon which a great deal of our infrastructure depends today. And we’re not just talking about knocking down Ebay or Twitter for a few hours; stop and think about how much of our lives now depend on electronics. If a flare were to hit Earth in the depths of a particularly cold winter or a toasty humid streak in the summer, (like hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans) you could expect hundreds to die from lack of heating or air conditioning. Emergency services would also be placed in serious jeopardy. A large flare would also damage satellites, including the GPS constellation of Iridium satellites currently in place. Any astronauts in orbit would be at risk, and would either have to evacuate the International Space Station or seek refuge in the bulkier center portions of the station. But a recent NASA study has indicated that the secondary and tertiary effects may be the most insidious. For example, unless you have a private well, water delivery to your house relies on an electrical pumping and regulating system..Try going without a toilet for 24 hours. Things can get messy real quick, making the stage ripe for the spread of cholera and dysentery. But we would hold that perhaps the widespread lack of communications would cause more damage than is generally acknowledged. In this age of 24/7 CNN, it would be hard to imagine our world shrunken down to the goings-on in our immediate neighborhood. Radio communications might be back up in 24 hours, but cellular and Internet might be down for a long, long time. In a post- 9/11 world, it might be easy for folks’ imaginations to run wild; was it a terrorist or nuclear attack? A fifth column coup? The concept of a solar super flare is still well outside of mainstream thought. Probably the worst damage a really energetic flare could do is permanent destruction of transformers, computer severs and even hard drives. Again, we’ve never suffered a Carrington-scale flare in modern times, so the extent of the damage would be hard to gauge, but would most likely range in the billions of dollars. Paradoxically, 1st world countries such as the U.S. would suffer the gravest damage; if you already draw water for your village well in Cambodia, you may not notice much of a lifestyle change. (Astroguyz might be late on a few posts…) You would, however, be treated to an uncharacteristic beautiful low latitude aurora at night! Of course, the longer term effects on the cancer rate would be a big total unknown, but mortality over the coming decades would most likely rise. Areas in northern latitudes typically get a higher radiation dose, as do passengers on transpolar flights.

Is there any upside to this gloomy scenario? Well, unlike other cosmic catastrophes, this one won’t do us in as a species. Plus, we now monitor our Sun 24 hours a day, from space satellites such as the Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and the ground based Global Oscillation Network (GONG). We would also have much more warning that our Sun was up to mischief than we did in 1859; while most flares we see bypass our local space environment harmlessly, an early warning of a big Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) could give us crucial time to protect or shut down key assets to shield them from damage. Such an event could be classed as a “once in a century” phenomenon. The Sun shows its angry side once every 11 years, and is due to pour it on again in the 2012-14 time frame (not to be confused with the Mayan calendar hoopla surrounding to date 2012, although I’m sure its only a matter of time before someone tries to make a tenuous connection!) Home preparation for such an event would be the same as we do every year here in Florida for hurricane season, with extra water, propane, batteries, etc. pretty much everything one does to prepare for the power to be out for a week or two would also apply for a “Solar Storm of the Century.”



So, you might ask, what do other stars do? Here we step out into the realm the hypothetical but terrifying; certain types of dwarf suns are highly energetic and release flares that would quickly extinguish life on Earth. In December 2005, NASA’s Swift satellite recorded just such a beast on a star 80% the mass of our Sun in the constellation Pegasus. 135 light years distant, this flare packed the wallop of 50 million trillion megatons and saturated the system with hard x-rays. Life as we know it near such a star would be unlikely; any hypothetical worlds orbiting this star would either be sterile or possess creatures cleverly adapted to this bizarre environment. Of course, life has surprised us before… I point these out to show such wild places exist in the universe. The fact that our Sun is relatively sedate by cosmological standards probably says a great deal about why were here to appreciate it in the first place!

So whats happened in the past? During previous tantrums, the Sun has;

  • Damaged power transformers in Quebec on March 13, 1989 leaving 6 million people without power for 9 hours;

  • Caused to loss of several satellites,most notably the reentry of Skylab in 1979.

  • Left traces of its impact of the largest storm in 500 years, the infamous Carrington Super-flare of 1959, in traces of beryllium-10 isotopes in the Greenland ice cap.

  • Kicked off the monstrous X28+ class flare observed in November 4th, 2003. Monitored by the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) this flare over- saturated the satellites’ detectors and thankfully was not aimed at the Earth!

  • True, its hard to believe that our currently docile Sun could have such a bestial side. Such is life in the universe. At very least, the worst we’ve seen the Sun dish out won’t do us in as a species anytime soon. And along asteroid impacts, its one of the few hazards we can actually do something about, i.e. by increased monitoring, hardening of electronic systems, and understanding of our nearest star. (heck, helioseimologists are now good enough to actually model the backside of the Sun currently rotated out of view!) Without a doubt, the Sun remains a dynamic observational target…so the next time you’re viewing the chromosphere through that brand new PST or other safe filter, marvel and pay heed to the potential of the approaching solar maximum, right around the corner!



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