Monday, August 18, 2014

Solar Storm

If an asteroid big enough to knock modern civilization back to the 18th century appeared out of deep space and buzzed the Earth-Moon system, the near-miss would be instant worldwide headline news.

On July 22nd, 2014 Earth experienced a close shave just as perilous, but most newspapers didn't mention it. The "impactor" was an extreme solar storm, the most powerful in as much as 150+ years. "If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," says Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado.

Today on Far Future Horizons we again explore the dangers posed by a sudden devastating electromagnetic pulse (EMP) emanating from the Sun with the acclaimed documentary series Naked Science – Solar Storm.

More than one hundred and fifty years ago a solar storm fried telegraph lines across the world during a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) widely known to astronomers as the Carrington Event.

The Perfect Solar Storm (The Carrington Event)

The Sun has bathed our planet with its eternal light and warmth for some 4.6 billion years and has provided life on earth with the energy to go about its terrestrial business. But, every now and then the Sun shows its full fury in the form of Solar Flares and Coronal Mass Ejections(CMEs).

A Solar flare is a sudden eruption of hydrogen gas on the surface of the sun, usually associated with sunspots and accompanied by a burst of ultraviolet radiation that is often followed by a magnetic disturbance.

A Coronal Mass ejection is an ejection of material from the solar corona. The ejected material is a plasma consisting primarily of electrons and protons (in addition to small quantities of heavier elements such as helium, oxygen, and iron), plus the entrained coronal magnetic field.

If these two events occur together you have the makings for the perfect solar storm. Just such a thing happened on September1st, 1859 and is widely known in astronomers as the Carrington Event.

What happened in 1859 was a combination of several events that occurred on the Sun at the same time. If they took place separately they would be somewhat notable events. But together they caused the most potent disruption of Earth's ionosphere in recorded history. "What they generated was the perfect space storm," says Bruce Tsurutani, a plasma physicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Recent evidence points to the possibility that this event, the most powerful super solarflare ever observed, was responsible for depleting away our ozone layer at levels greater than chlorofluorocarbons(CFCs).

This breakdown caused global atmospheric ozone levels to drop by 5%. In comparison, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other chemicals have depleted the levels by about 3% in recent years.

However, unlike CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals, which can persist in the atmosphere for some time, the flare-induced ozone thinning probably lasted for just four years, the researchers report.That is because the nitrogen oxides that cause the depletion eventually rain down with water or ice. Indeed, it was this acid rain that was eventually recorded in the ice cores.

Within hours, telegraph wires in both the United States and Europe spontaneously shorted out, causing numerous fires, while the Northern Lights, solar-induced phenomena more closely associated with regions near Earth's North Pole, were documented as far south as Rome, Havana and Hawaii, with similar effects at the South Pole.

Today our planet's entire electrical grid and our technological civilization are at risk. 

Now, scientists are using the latest technology to predict when our sun will again unleash its next fiery tempest.

This and other National Geographic documentaries can be purchased direct from their online store or

Naked Science – Solar Storm

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