Radio blackouts? How the solar flares headed towards Earth may cause power outages

Solar flare iStock

A massive solar flare erupted from the Sun on June 14 and is expected to hit the Earth soon. | Representational photo

Photo : iStock

A massive solar flare has erupted from the Sun on June 14 and is expected to hit the Earth soon, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The US-based scientific and regulatory agency has raised an alert that the solar flare headed our way is likely to cause a powerful solar storm and lead to blackouts. The phenomenon could put many parts of the world at a standstill. And it could be as early as July 19 (Tuesday), as per NASA.

Dr Tamitha Skov – a space weather physicist who predicts aurora, GPS, high-frequency radio and radiation-related issues – took to social media to tweet about the potential solar storm, along with a spectacular video. “The long snake-like filament cartwheeled its way off the #Sun in a stunning ballet. The magnetic orientation of this Earth-directed #solarstorm is going to [be] tough to predict. G2-level (possibly G3) conditions may occur if the magnetic field of the storm is oriented southward!” she tweeted.

How can this solar flare affect the Earth?

The solar flares that have erupted from the Sun can hit the Earth anytime soon and are reportedly strong enough to cause a blackout towards the planet’s poles and other prone areas. Although the solar storm is not expected to cause severe destruction, it can potentially cause northern lights in some parts of the world. Radio communications can be impacted, leading to blackouts in some places, and there can be some disruptions for ship and air travellers as well.

What are solar flares? And how do they cause radio blackouts?

Solar flares are strong localised electromagnetic eruptions on the surface of the sun. The strength of the eruptions varies, and hence they’re classified into A, B, C, M and X categories, with A being the least powerful and X being the most powerful.

During instances of flare eruptions, intense bursts of energy and radiation are packed within them that are harmful to the earth’s inhabitants. The reason we stay protected from such flares is because of the Earth’s atmosphere that envelopes around us. However, during certain cases, the high amount of energy from the solar flares can be transferred to the Earth’s atmosphere, ionizing the upper layer of the atmosphere ultimately resulting in a loss of signal since that layer of the atmosphere is used for radio communication.

But they are a key reason for our existence – at least according to some scientists

Interestingly, some scientists at NASA believe that solar storms might have been one of the key reasons behind life on Earth today. According to the study, some 4 billion years ago, the sun shone with only about three-quarters of the brightness people see today. But there were giant eruptions from the sun’s surface that spewed enormous amounts of solar material and radiation out into space. These solar explosions could have provided the energy required to warm that Earth and make it more habitable. Moreover, they could have converted simple molecules into more complex molecules such as RNA and DNA, which are essential to sustain life.
“Back then, the Earth received only about 70 per cent of the energy from the sun than it does today. That means the Earth should have been an icy ball. Instead, geological evidence says it was a warm globe with liquid water. We call this the Faint Young Sun Paradox. Our new research shows that solar storms could have been central to warming Earth,” according to Vladimir Airapetian, the lead author of the paper and a solo scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

One of the biggest solar storms ever – not too long ago

22 years ago, on July 14, 2000, the Earth experienced a major solar flare eruption that is remembered as the Bastille Day Event since it coincided with France’s national day. The Bastille Day storm was classified as an X5 eruption, one of the highest classes of solar flares. It was the biggest flare that raged on the sun since 1989.

The event occurred because magnetic field lines formed on a sunspot, an active region that appears darker than the surrounding area, and then became more and more twisted. The magnetic potential energy of the sun kept escalating until it hit a certain point, snapped and released that energy in the form of heat, light and the motion of particles. Some of the plasma particles from the sun’s atmosphere were accelerated away from its surface and out into space in a coronal mass ejection. These protons and electrons headed toward the Earth and disrupted satellites and blocked radio communications.

The event, which is being studied to this day, has been estimated to carry 10^33 ergs of magnetic energy, equivalent to a thousand billion atomic bombs used during World War II.

Related Posts