“Just So Science” – Superflare

By Elf Eldridge 21/08/2011


There always seems to be some new ‘fashionable’ way for people to predict the end of the world doesn’t there? Last year it was the supposed black holes created by the LHC, then there was the whole “planetary alignment” thing promoted by films like 2012. The one that poked it’s head up this week is the idea that in 2012 a massive solar flare from our sun will engulf the earth, disrupt electrical grids and communications and just generally cause chaos and pandemonium. A more indepth discussion of how terrified we should all be can be found here.

So, should we all be hiding under our beds, scared that the sky will fall? Well, like all the best horror stories, this idea takes elements of truth and weaves them together into a compelling narrative to attempt to give the theory credence. The idea that the current 11 year sunspot cycle will peak in 2012 is correct – however, the peak in the cycle doesn’t mean there will be a giant solar flare. Many of you will have been alive for the last couple of peaks in the cycle, without any ill effects whatsoever, with the largest impact being the gorgeous aurora images that we get during this period. The last recorded ‘massive solar flare’ , known as the Carrington event, occurred in 1859 – causing intense aurora around the world, but life continued on unperturbed. [2,4,5]

Aurora Australis
Aurora Australis
Aurora Australis from Space
Aurora Australis from Space

The idea that a large enough solar flare would disrupt communications and power grids also has a grain of truth to it. What’s odd is that terrestrial events can also do this, but people don’t worry about them! The best we can do to combat this is to set up early warning systems, which (unsurprisingly) is exactly what we are doing. This will allow us to prepare for the event and minimise the damage – long term disruption of either communications or power is the ultimate worst case scenario here, and by no means the most likely. [2,4]

The idea that an intense solar burst could bombard the surface of the earth with damaging radiation also has elements of truth to it. The earth’s protective magnetic field is by no means uniform, there are weak spots which allow more radiation to penetrate in certain areas then others, but (unsurprisingly again!) our bodies are equipped with a myriad of ways to limit the damage and repair themselves in this eventuality. It’s a little phenomena known as ‘healing’. Those who are really at risk here are astronauts, beyond much of the protective range of the earth’s magnetic field, who could be exposed to extremely high levels of damaging radiation. So what can we do about it? Well, that’s another thing an early warning system allows us to minimise the impact of. [2,4,5]

So what can you do to minimise the impact of an event like this on you and your loved ones? Here are 3 simple tips to help you “Get Ready and Get Thru”:

  1. Don’t be in space. Being in space greatly increases your chances of sustaining long term damage in an event like this. If ‘outer space’ is typically on your commute to work, consider staying at home for a few days.
  2. Invest in an “Emergency Survivial Kit“. A collection of items similar to what the CDC recommends for a Zombie Apocalypse should suffice. *
  3. Ensure wiring in your house uses fuses. Seriously, that little fuse box on the wall of your house will prevent a potential ‘Star Trek’ scenario (shown below) **
This is what happens when an advanced civilzation forgets about the importance of fuses. Shame on them.
This is what happens when an 'advanced civilzation' forgets about the importance of fuses. Shame on them.

More seriously, before anyone loses any sleep over this – there are a few things you should consider. First, our sun emits solar flares and coronal mass ejections all the time, and has for the past 4 billion years that life has colonised the Earth. This is a long time, even compared to the life-time of the sun, and so it’s unlikely that anything unusual will happen tomorrow, or next year, or on any timescale measurable by us tiny, short-lived human beings. Secondly, stars like our sun do NOT typically emit giant solar flares. How do we know? We look at stars similar to our sun and see if they do – and it turns out that virtually none of the do [1]. Thirdly, solar flares or coronal mass ejections are directional – like a jet of material shooting out of the sun – so even if one were to occur, the chances of it hitting the earth are minuscule. Fourthly, the Earth has a protective magnetic field. It’s true that it varies in strength, but certainly not enough to warrant concern from anyone other than astronauts. And finally, remember that it’s always the worst case scenario that makes the best stories. A large solar flare could disrupt power and communications, but we would repair them. We have satellites like the Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) who act as an early warning system that will allow us to alert people and to minimise the effects on power grids.

In conclusion – if you want something to worry about, worry about crossing the road. I know it doesn’t make as good a story, but it’s much more likely than being roasted by a storm from our sun!

* Both of these link to standard emergency survival kits. Everyone should have one. They are useful for much more than a stellar apocalypse.

** All NZ houses have to have fuse boxes by law. Power grids have them too. The Enterprise does not. I’ve never understood why.

References:

1) http://iopscience.iop.org/0004-637X/529/2/1031/

2) http://www.2012hoax.org/solar-flares

3) http://sci.esa.int/science-e/www/object/index.cfm?fobjectid=47814

4) http://science.howstuffworks.com/major-solar-flares-20121.htm

5) http://science.howstuffworks.com/major-solar-flares-2012.htm