Without much fanfare or news, Earth continues to get showered with an ever-increasing volume of solar radiation caused by a significant increase in large solar flares. This is due to the fact that the sun is currently reaching the peak of its 11 year solar cycle. That peak is known as the “Solar Maximum”.
This period marks a major increase in the number of sunspots and solar flares that blast a huge volume of electromagnetic and particle radiation out into space – which of course eventually directly impacts the little blue marble we like to call our home – Earth.
For the most part, the only significant effects to our planet are solar storms in the outer atmosphere (lots of charged particles colliding with our magnetosphere and affecting our outer atmosphere), as well as degrading or damaging the sensitive electronic systems in the artificial military and commercial satellites orbiting the planet. (1) With the increase in sun activity last year and this year, satellites have seen the brunt of the negative activity, but not much on the ground itself has been impacted – not yet at least.
We’ve covered a lot of stories about the solar maximum in 2013, and more recently about how the sun’s magnetic poles are about to flip, but is it possible that any of this will affect any of us on Earth? Is it already?
The Unpredictable Sun and Solar Flares
The problem with the current solar maximum is that scientists are struggling to understand why the activity has been so much quieter than predicted, and of course there’s the fact that the poles, which typically flip every 11 years, are actually out of sync. The north pole has already flipped, but the south pole hasn’t. It is a phenomenon that scientists didn’t predict and a mystery that they have yet to figure out. (2)
While solar flares have been lower than predicted, there has actually been an uptick in solar flares over the last few weeks, signaling that the sun’s magnetic field final switch is near at hand. Dr. Ken Tapping of the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia told CBS News that the mystery is of some concern to scientists.
“Obviously, we would feel happier if we saw the sun doing business as usual, rather than heading off into some territory where we basically are not sure we understand what’s going to happen.” (3)
What’s The Sun Going to Do?
Other scientists predict that when the flip finally happens, it will create bursts of energy that could not only affect the space around Earth’s orbit, but the greater number of high-energy articles penetrating our magnetosphere could have a significant impact on radio and satellite communications – or in a worse case Carrington Event-like scenario, a vast number of electronic equipment on Earth.
In fact, the Carrington Event itself – the largest solar flare in recorded history that disrupted telegraph machines at the time – was just after the sun had reached its solar maximum in 1859. It was only after the maximum that the sun experienced the largest increase of sun-spot activity. Scientists constantly advise the public that people on Earth have nothing to worry about, because we are all protected by a warm and fuzzy blanket known as the magnetosphere, which deflects the flux of particles to the poles of Earth, where they cause brilliant Aurorae.
However, the flood of protons from one particular coronal mass ejection was so powerful at the time, that the magnetic field could not deflect them all. This charged particle flux filtering down into Earth’s atmosphere influenced the Earth’s natural electromagnetic field so significantly that it wreaked havoc for telegraph systems around the world – inducing current in many of the wires, and in one case reportedly setting equipment on fire.
Monitoring the Sun
If you think the sun’s solar activity destroying the Earth’s electrical systems is a far-fetched idea, then you may want to browse through the website of the Space Weather Prediction Center maintained by the National Weather Service. There you can see the latest data and charts showing the sun’s most recent solar activity.
If you click on the Alerts/Warnings section, you will see regular warnings using language such as, “Induced Currents – Weak power grid fluctuations can occur.” Or, “Wide area blackout of HF (high frequency) radio communications for about an hour.”
Despite the comments from the talking heads in news reports on solar activity that we have “nothing to worry about” from a large increase in solar activity, the truth is that a solar flare on the scale of the Carrington Event – most likely to occur following the solar maximum – would have a devastating effect on society.
In a world where so much of the infrastructure depends on the Internet, and where more and more systems are being built on a “wireless” platform – a “Carrington Event” today would cause far more destruction than people may realize, or are willing to admit.
It’s an event that the world simply isn’t prepared for.