Space

The Ends Of The World: Solar Flares

It’s unlikely that solar flares will ever lead to the end of the world. That may be an odd way to begin an “Ends of the World” post, but it’s true: so long as the Earth’s magnetosphere remains stable, we’re fine. Then again, that’s the catch, isn’t it?

It’s Happened Before: The Carrington Event

On September 1, 1859, an electromagnetic storm raged across our planet as Solar Cycle 10 entered its solar maximum. The sky lit up with a brilliant aurora visible from Cuba to Hawaii and beyond, bright enough to erase the darkness of night. Telegraph systems sparked and malfunctioned, shocking their operators as they struggled to send their messages. A short news report in the September 3, 1859 edition of the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser highlighted the dazzling event:

Those who happened to be out late on Thursday night had an opportunity of witnessing another magnificent display of the auroral lights,” the article stated, “The phenomenon was very similar to the display on Sunday night, though at times the light was, if possible, more brilliant, and the prismatic hues more varied and gorgeous. The light appeared to cover the whole firmament, apparently like a luminous cloud, through which the stars of the larger magnitude indistinctly shone. The light was greater than that of the moon at its full, but had an indescribable softness and delicacy that seemed to envelop everything upon which it rested. Between 12 and 1 o’clock, when the display was at its full brilliancy, the quiet streets of the city resting under this strange light, presented a beautiful as well as singular appearance.

Named after amateur astronomer Richard Carrington, who observed the flare as it happened, the event would come to be known as the Carrington Event, or Carrington Flare, the most powerful solar flare in recorded history. A study available at ScienceDirect collects some of the other eyewitness reports of the event.

Fortunately, that “super flare” proved relatively harmless to life on Earth, but its effects on technology at the time — rudimentary as it may seem today — is a shocking reminder of the true destructive nature of our Sun. According to the National Weather Service, we’ve even seen this more recently, such as a solar storm on March 13, 1989, which caused a power outage in Canada for about nine hours.

The Perfect Electromagnetic Storm

While there are no signs of previous extinction events caused by solar flares, there’s always the possibility that, given just the right circumstances, we could meet the perfect storm.

The perfect geomagnetic storm, in this case, might go something like this: During the Sun’s solar maximum, a coronal mass ejection of great magnitude would push the Earth’s magnetosphere closer to the planet’s surface, near ground-level. Satellites would be exposed to charged particles, and at this point, we’d already see most of our technological infrastructure affected.

This would then be followed by a so-called super flare, a particularly powerful solar flare. It would be a one-two punch of massive ejections from the sun, the first paving the way for the second, together causing untold devastation on our planet. This same one-two punch could also come as the result of a magnetic pole shift during a solar maximum, followed by a super flare. A study published in December 2020 looks at what researchers call “an idealized perfect interplanetary coronal mass ejection,” and it’s not pretty!

Neither scenario is likely to occur, but it’s always good to know what could potentially happen. As of March 2024, we are currently in Solar Cycle 25, and according to the National Weather Service, we’ll be hitting the peak of its sunspot activity in 2025.

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Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.