Scientists are now claiming that solar flares in 2012 almost cost the Earth trillions of dollars when they missed the planet by a mere nine days. In July of that year the sun released three solar flares which sent magnetized plasma into the orbit of Earth and which, if it had made contact, would have disrupted GPS and satellite transmissions as well as impacting on electricity. The flares were days apart although each containing the energy of a billion hydrogen bombs apiece, and increased intensively as they progressed, with the sun at its highest speed ever transcribed by the appearance of the final flare. The Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) believed that the first couple of flares led to an initial increase in the speed of the sun, thereby allowing the final flares to gain even greater speed at more than 1,800 miles a second. Collectively these solar flares can be seen as a solar super-storm that could have potentially almost smothered Earth’s atmosphere by disabling digital communication systems.
This report was released by the University of California, Berkeley, and states that if the storm had collided with Earth it would have been as large as the greatest ever recorded back in 1859. The incident in 1859 became known as the Carrington event and completely disabled the entire US telegraph system which was the primary means of communication at the time. It also led to such powerful northern lights that they were visible in Hawaii and Cuba. However, due to the world’s increasing reliance on digital media and communications the repercussions from a direct impact in 2012 would have been much more costly and far reaching. Ying D Liu, research physicist with UC Berkeley and the National Space Science Centre of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, states that on top of the astronomical cost such a powerful storm could create, the time it would take for the world to recover could be up to an entire decade. As such she believes that further investigation into these solar phenomenons should be given the highest priority in order to secure the economic and technological investment of modern society.
Indeed the findings of this report have resulted in a greater understanding of how these storms manifest themselves, their causes and potential methods of protection against their power. This is partially due to some of the storm being captured on video by both the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and STEREO, the footage of which can be viewed on YouTube. It was discovered that solar flares can create an opening for further coronal mass ejections (CME’s) to erupt, allowing them to build on the speed of their predecessors and thus travel further and with greater velocity. This is shown to be a result of the initial flares straightening the magnetic fields and vaporizing debris and particles within its trajectory. A project scientist for STEREO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, Joe Goddard, claims that the most important conclusion drawn from the data and information they retrieved was that preliminary conditions inside the sun are not the only cause of such spectacular solar storms. Goddard states that scientists are now acknowledging that interactions between the CME’s are also relevant.
By investigating further into the magnetic fields of the sun and Earth, STEREO aims to address the lack of understanding and research into solar storms and the impact they could have on the planet, hopefully allowing them to be able to estimate when they might next occur. Given the fact that technology usage and communications are expanding at such a rapid rate this research is incredibly important in helping to protect Earth from solar super-storms which could have such devastating consequences financially, socially and politically if the atmosphere of the planet is smothered by magnetic fields.
By Rhona Scullion