While recent hurricanes have been devastating parts of the Earth, some major activity has also been taking place at the center of our solar system.
Earlier this month, the sun emitted several powerful bursts of radiation called solar flares, including one on Sept. 6 that was the most powerful on record in more than a decade.
A solar flare occurs when magnetic energy builds up in the solar atmosphere and is released as high-energy radiation, observable as a flash of light on the sun.
They are sometimes accompanied by a coronal mass ejection – a solar event which releases a giant cloud of solar matter, or energetic plasma, instead of radiation. If a coronal mass ejection hits Earth, it could pose a danger to our technological infrastructure, according to Fermilab senior scientist Don Lincoln.
“As you get a mass of plasma hitting the Earth’s atmosphere, a whole bunch of charged particles push the magnetic fields of Earth that protect us,” Lincoln said. “If you change magnetic fields, it can generate electricity. If that happens, then it induces electrical currents in big circuits.”
That “big circuit” could include the nation’s power grid, causing a potentially catastrophic nationwide blackout, he said.
Lincoln said the solar flares that occurred earlier this month were accompanied by a coronal mass ejection that luckily missed Earth by a good distance – one that occurred in July 2012 came much closer to our planet.
Lincoln recommends governments prepare infrastructure for future solar events that could cost $2 trillion and take a decade to recover from, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
“In the case of a really, really bad event, they could decide simply to take the grid offline and have a blackout for 10 or 12 hours, but save the infrastructure of the nation,” Lincoln said.
The radiation of solar flares can interfere with satellites and radio waves. The National Weather Service reported a high-frequency radio blackout and degradation of GPS communication for an hour on Sept. 6 due to the recent solar flares.
Lincoln joins us to discuss these solar events and the danger they pose.
Sept. 14: The Cassini mission has completely transformed our understanding of Saturn and identified two moons that could potentially harbor life. On Friday morning, the journey will come to a fiery end.
Aug. 21: Chicagoans from all neighborhoods and walks of life came out of the shadows to fix their appropriately covered eyes on the skies.
Aug. 21: What did you see during the historic event? Add your images to our online gallery.