The Invisible Storm Sweeping our Planet
In the simpler times of the Ancient Greeks or Ancient Egyptians, all that could be observed was that the sun came up in the east and set in the west. Every ancient civilizations assigned deities to explain phenomena that simply could not be understood at the time in any other terms. Fast forward to today, and we are now able to measure and predict movements and events, even ones that cannot be seen by the human eye—such as the solar storm now hitting Earth.
A solar storm is violent outburst of explosive activity on the Sun, which can belch out large quantities of ionized matter and radiation through solar flares. To the average person sitting outside on a nice spring day, this emission of radiation and particles would be unnoticeable, but still there are profound consequences. The radiation and other particles are often a byproduct of the solar flare and can be followed by a coronal mass ejection (CME), a cloud of superheated gas and charged particles hurled at the sun. The gist is that certain strong solar storms can disturb Earth’s magnetic field, knocking out power, GPS, and other man-made satellites. Although most solar storms are no real harm to life on Earth, damage of high tech-gadgets and other technology setup by space programs such as NASA can cost billions. Understandably so, astronomers were waiting anxiously when they predicted that the storm that hit on March 8, 2012 to be the second biggest solar flare of the current 11-year sun cycle.
The good news is that the storm that is currently encompassing Earth is not nearly as great as was predicted. The storm is more of a ‘magnetic breeze than a gale’, and power, satellites, and GPS have all remained intact. As Jeffery Hughes, the director of the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling at Boston University, said, “I think we just lucked out. It just didn’t pack as strong a magnetic field as we were anticipating.” The solar storm has several factors, which suggest its potential for damage, such as its strength, speed, and magnetic orientation. The magnitude and speed can be predicted, but the orientation cannot be known until it actually reaches Earth. The solar storm on March 8th had a southern orientation—the less hazardous of the two orientations (north-south). The orientation of the storm is one of the reasons the solar storm was not one of the most damaging solar storms of the last decade, but probably for the last few months.
The end is nowhere near though. As is typical of sunspots, solar storms are generated in waves. This past storm just happens to be a part of the sun’s routine 11-year cycle, which is projected to reach its peak next year. In other words, storms like these and maybe even more severe ones may be headed our way, with the potential to interfere and disrupt Earth’s technology with magnetic, radio, and radiation emissions. Until then, scientists will just have to wait and hope for better weather for Earth.
Alex Kumar is a freshman from Baker College at Rice University.