Oh God, Oh God,
We’re All Gonna Die

23 August 2013

Animation of a solar prominence.Gourou Bignole
Animation of a solar prominence.

Recently there’s been a flurry of articles about an increase in solar activity, including rumors that Edward Snowden had revealed the NSA knows of a solar flare “killshot” set to cause a global famine that will kill millions. The rumor has since been traced back to a satirical website, but that didn’t prevent the story from being repeated across the internet. The story has flared up again in the past few days on new that NASA has reported the Sun has emitted a coronal mass ejection (CME) in the direction of Earth.

Are we really doomed? No.

A coronal mass ejection occurs when a burst of solar material (mostly ionized hydrogen) is blasted off the Sun. These happen fairly regularly when the Sun is in an active period. If it occurs in the direction of Earth, the ionized material interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field, and are driven toward the polar regions where they and produce northern (and southern) lights. Mass ejections can also interfere with satellites, but we have ways to minimize their effect. So the announcement of a CME is not a huge deal.

Intense solar activity can have larger effects on us, such as causing power outages. In 1989 a large solar flare triggered a regional blackout in Quebec. So when solar flares hit the news there are the range of websites predicting the dreaded “big one”. Theses sites often reference the “Carrington Event” of 1859, which was so intense it produced northern lights as far south as the Caribbean. It also induced currents in telegraph lines. The storm induced enough current in the lines that messages could be sent across them even while the lines were disconnected from their power supplies.

If such an event occurred today, it would likely cause massive blackouts worldwide. It could cause trillions of dollars in damage, and would take several years to fully recover. It would be a massive disruption, but it wouldn’t be the end of civilization. Fortunately, studies of ice cores indicate that solar storms such as the Carrington Event only occur about once every 500 years, and there is no indication that such an event is likely to happen any time soon.

Of course the up-side of solar activity is that we have the opportunity to observe it. Take for example the awesome image above of a solar prominence. You can see the ionized material follow the curved magnetic fields near the Sun’s surface. Just to give you a sense of scale, this particular image is a bit wider than the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

So don’t listen to the rumors. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.