The largest solar flare is expected to occur December 21, 2012, and rumored to be the center of the whole ‘2012-the world is ending’ fiasco. Just kidding! But now that I have your attention, solar flares are merely the Sun releasing massive amounts of gas, plasma, and high energy light into its atmosphere. The gas and plasma falls back into the Sun, but the high energy light are the solar flares we can see. The frequency of solar flares varies, from several per day when the Sun is “active” to less than one every week when the Sun is “quiet”, following the 11-year cycle. Figure 1 shows the Sun at ten different phases over the 11-year cycle where each picture is the next year to the previous picture. In the picture, solar minimum is where the Sun is a darker shade. Solar minimum is when the Sun has less activity, and during this time solar flares wouldn’t be as likely as when the Sun is at solar maximum which is the brighter parts of the graph. During solar maximum, Earth is most likely to be affected by solar flares and CMEs. You’ll learn more of CMEs in the next paragraph.
Figure 1: Solar cycle
This figure was taken by Yohkoh, a Japanese X-ray telescope, from the approximate 1992 to 2001 (starting from the left moving clockwise). The brighter spots in the image the more x-rays emission off the surface of the Sun (i.e. solar flares) and the less amount of light on the Sun means no solar flares created.
Large flares are less frequent than smaller ones. Large solar flares really only harm humans at high altitudes or astronauts due to the strength of our atmosphere. CMEs, or coronal mass ejection, affect technology to great extent, but not humans. CMEs and solar flares are not to be confused. Solar flares are known for shooting intense light from the Sun and really only gives out radiation; CMEs are particles. Not all solar flares produce CMEs and not all CMEs accompany solar flares, but they usually occur together.
Solar flares don’t really do any damage to Earth, but CMEs have the power and intensity to shift Earth’s magnetic field. Together, solar flares and CMEs create geomagnetic storms that cause charged particles to slam into our atmosphere. They affect the Earth via “Faraday’s law”. “Faraday’s law” is when an object (in this case, the CMEs) moves a magnetic field (Earth’s) and generates an electric current in nearby conductive materials (high voltage objects here on Earth). So, CMEs intense particles hit Earth and affect our telephone wires, electric generators, etc, which aren’t made to carry additional currents so they often break when this happens, which is what leads to the mass blackouts. The good thing is that your cell phone, iPod, laptop, and other small devices would not be affected by CMEs, but the reception wouldn’t work and once the battery dies, you would not be able to charge it.
September 1st and 2nd, 1859 is known for the largest recorded solar storm to date. The light from aurora borealis, also known as the Northern lights, was so bright people mistook it for Sunrise. All over Europe and North America telegraph systems failed. Some shocked telegraph operators. Some telegraph pylons threw sparks and paper spontaneously caught fire. Yet, some seemed to continue to send and receive messages even while disconnected from the power supply. Scientist fear that late 2012, early 2013, will be really be the next “Perfect” solar flare. Due to our advance in technology, we would be more affected by this great solar flare with greater outcomes than just a few sparks. Watch out.
1. According to Figure 1, would our Sun now (in the year 2012) be closer to solar minimum or solar maximum?
2. Describe the difference (in your own words) between solar flares and CMEs.
3. Due to the all the information that you know now, what do you think will happen if and when Sun emits the next “Perfect” solar flare (in your own words).