What causes solar storms? Why should people nearly a hundred million miles away on Earth care so much about them? Massive explosions of electrified plasma from the sun are identified as Solar Storms but often they just cause a beautiful light show in the farthest points of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. The reason why human beings need to understand and care about solar storms is that they have the potential to cause devastating effects on the planet Earth. Those effects include problems that may affect daily life such as knocking out satellites, blacking out power grids, and completely altering the atmosphere and climate. Scientists have gathered plenty of information over the years to explain Solar storms and have even built a system to protect the Earth's energy. However, the earth is still vulnerable to solar activity, much of which remains a mystery to science. Scientists are also uncertain about the specific effects of solar storms and how to completely prevent them from wreaking havoc on earth. How can we prepare for the unknown possibilities of the sun? All we have is the history of nature and the promise of science to help protect ourselves from the future; with knowledge we can stay one step ahead of the universe.
About The Sun
The Sun is a massive, and magnificent object with a seriously complex system of inner workings that have the potential to alter the universe -- or at least our galaxy. This huge star is considered the center of Earth's existence, and has been revered as a god throughout human history. The sun produces all the light, heat, and energy for humans and indeed the entire planet.
The sun is approximately 1.4 million Kilometers wide; about a hundred times the size of the planet Earth. The sun also houses around 99.8% of the total mass of the solar system in hot gases. Those gasses heat the sun up to about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit on the surface alone (National Geographic). Energy from the sun is created from the transformation of gasses, in particular by changing hydrogen into helium via nuclear fusion (National Geographic). Therefore, the sun is a giant radioactive body. The sun is also incredibly old, as it takes more than a million years for the transformation of gasses at the sun's core to reach the sun's surface in the form of energy (National Geographic).
One of the effects or functions of the sun's energy is the creation of a massive magnetic field. The magnetic field "extends out into interplanetary space to form the interplanetary magnetic field," (von Rosenvinge 2010, "The Sun's Magnetic Field."). Moreover, the sun actually rotates. When the sun rotates, the magnetic field of the sun is spun into a spiral. That spiral is called the Parker Spiral. The Parker spiral is complex, as it actually spins in two different directions at once. Furthermore, every eleven years at a period called "solar maximum," the sun's magnetic field shifts. The last solar maximum occurred in 2001 (von Rosenvinge 2010, "The Sun's Magnetic Field.").
Another effect of the sun's energy is solar plasma, which consists of charge particles such as protons and electrons. The particles shoot off the sun at fantastic speeds of about 400 kilometers per second, or a million miles per hour (von Rosenvinge 2010 "Solar Wind"). In fact, solar wind does impact human activity -- just not on planet Earth. Solar wind can have an impact on the flight paths of spacecraft (von Rosenvinge 2010 "Solar Wind").
Earth and its Relationship with the Sun
The Earth could not survive without the sun, and indeed the history of the Earth is intricately related to its relationship with the sun. The sun helped to form the earth four and a half billion years ago. The earth formed in the sun's "proto-planetary disk," and a collision with other planets created the satellite moon shortly thereafter (Johnston n.d.). At this time in the earth's early history, the atmosphere consisted mainly of carbon dioxide. The earth had a molten core, its own magnetic field, and even had surface water. Life gradually started to emerge out of that surface water over the course of millions of years, with peak biological productivity occurring a billion years ago (Johnston n.d.). Now, conditions on the earth are strikingly different from what they were then. Whereas the atmosphere on earth was mainly carbon dioxide four billion years ago, now the earth's atmosphere consists mainly of nitrogen and oxygen. During this period of earth's planetary development, the formation of life would have been impossible without the sun. One of the reasons why the outermost planets in our solar system cannot support life is that they are located too far from the sun. Not enough light or heat reaches outlying planets, and without light plants cannot perform photosynthesis. The earth is just the right distance from the sun to support life, because solar energy enables photosynthesis and supports biological life forms.
One interesting thing that science has shown is that the sun is becoming brighter and brighter with no signs of stopping. Two billion years ago, the sun was only about 89% as bright as it is now; a billion years ago the sun brightened to about 95% of what it is now. It is predicted, therefore, that the sun may be 10% brighter than it is now a billion years into the future (Johnston n.d.). Such a trend may predict massive earth changes that could impact life on the planet. If the sun becomes brighter and warms the earth, what types of biological changes could take place in the plant and animal kingdoms? How does the sun's brightness impact human life?
A Description of Possible Futures
Changes in the sun and the earth's relationship to the sun will cause disruptions in satellite systems, which control human communications networks. In May of 2010, a satellite was in fact hit by a solar storm. The direct hit fried the satellite's brain and completely disrupted it. Now, that satellite and several others like it that have been hit by solar storms are called "zombie satellites" or "zombiesats" by those in the communications industry. As O'Neill (2010) points out, "There are dozens of zombiesats trapped in geostationary orbit, but they all tend to drift toward two points: 105 degrees west and 75 degrees east." Certainly zombiesats are costing human beings a lot of money, even if backup satellites are available so that communication and information technologies are not completely disrupted. However, in the event of a massive solar flare-up it is conceivable that several satellites could be destroyed at once. In that scenario, communications systems and information systems might be seriously disrupted. Disruptions could wreak havoc on the planet.
Solar storms can also cause serious disruptions to the power grid. Because grids are interconnected, the potential for disaster is greater than ever before (Phillips 2009). The disruption to power grid would even affect the ability to flush toilets (Phillips 2009). Few people are aware that the sun could impact flushing the toilet. If power grids go out or experience surges due to solar storms, several social and economic systems would be disrupted. For example, banking systems could collapse. Traffic could not flow as all the lights would be out. Businesses could not operate. Chaos would ensue.
Solar storms present one positive gift to humanity: the gorgeous light displays called auroras. Technically "coronal mass ejections," these solar flares are simply plasma shooting off the sun and into space. From the Earth's perspective, though, a coronal mass ejection is nature's art. The harmless flares are known commonly as the Northern Lights in the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Lights in the Southern Hemisphere. These are collectively called the aurora borealis and are classified as C-class solar flares. If a more…