In A Nutshell
The Sun is usually the last thing we think of in relation to damaging storms, since we tend to associate the Sun with good weather. Perhaps this is why the connection between solar activity and geomagnetic surges on Earth wasn’t discovered until 1859. The Sun easily has the potential to do us more harm than all the elements on Earth combined—but there are much bigger and more powerful stars in our universe, all with the potential to blast harmful cosmic rays at us unexpectedly.
The Whole Bushel
The solar super-storm of 1859 lasted several days and is the most powerful solar storm so far recorded. It was also the first to be observed globally thanks to better international communications. People everywhere saw and wrote about the remarkable geomagnetic phenomena, the sky being filled with colorful, rippling sheets of the aurora borealis and aurora australis in many different locations including Cuba and Hawaii. Much information about the unusual geomagnetic activity was collected by American mathematician Elias Loomis and published in the American Journal of Science.
At the same time Loomis was recording his findings, amateur English astronomer Richard Carrington was observing the Sun and recording sunspot activity. He’d projected the Sun’s image onto a glass plate and diluted its brilliance. When he witnessed a solar mega-flare, he thought the light must have broken through the filter on his telescope, since the flare was so brilliant. Carrington was the first man in history to make the connection between the Sun’s activity and the peculiar electromagnetic phenomena resulting on Earth. The scientific community repaid him by destroying his reputation.
Astronomers have now devised a scale for classifying solar flares. Since solar flares are so far away and so massive, measurements of size were obviously problematic in Carrington’s day. In energy terms, even the smallest fraction could instantly vaporize anything we know. We’re talking about the equivalent of millions of 100-megaton hydrogen bombs exploding at once. That’s Hiroshima to the power of God-alone-knows-what. The biggest problem with this scale is that the human mind must first try to imagine the degree of awesomeness that the scale’s measurements actually imply.
The electromagnetic spectrum goes into overload whenever a serious solar storm occurs—everything from radio waves to harmful X-rays and gamma-rays—even at a distance of roughly 149,600,000 kilometers (92,000,000 mi). Fortunately, harmful X-rays and gamma rays can’t penetrate Earth’s atmosphere, but it’s bad news if you’re an astronaut. Since the upper atmosphere expands due to heavily charged ions, the orbits of satellites can be affected and their electrical systems can fry.
That’s not to mention the damage that could occur to power grids and communications systems here on Earth. If telegraph operators got electric shocks back in 1859, just imagine what might happen today. Our homes and workplaces are filled with so many appliances and wires—all capable of conducting electromagnetic energy. The hole in the ozone layer could also allow entry to a greatly increased amount of harmful UV rays.
Today, evidence of the Carrington flare can be found in ice core samples. The Carrington Event is used as a marker by scientists to measure the effects of more recent and present day solar flare activity. If an event of the same magnitude as the Carrington Event were to happen today, then the modern world would be devastated with serious disruptions and damages estimated in the trillions of dollars. For this reason, the continued study of solar flares is extremely important.
Fortunately, the ice core samples seem to reveal that solar flares on a par with the Carrington Event only happen roughly once every 500 years. However, these kinds of past solar mega-flare events, determined from lingering high-energy proton radiation signatures, might not have come from the Sun at all. Unfortunately, they could have come from other stars in the galaxy or from stars even further away.
There is a category of stars known as “flare stars.” Flare stars emit stellar flares unexpectedly, releasing huge blasts of super-heated plasma particles that accelerate and collide to cause massive radiation. A massive pulse of stellar energy aimed at Earth could potentially turn all of us boastful humans into toasted hummus in just a matter of days. It’s yet another good reason to start taking better care of the atmosphere and environment that might save us from such a calamity.
Show Me The Proof
What is a Solar Flare?
How to determine the effects of a solar flare
National Geographic: What If the Biggest Solar Flare on Record Happened Today?
American Association of Variable Star Observers: UV Ceti and the flare stars