Faster and Smarter: The Big Think Newsletter

The sun has a new way to kill us: coronal mass ejections

Our ancestors worshipped the sun for good reason. As the root source of light and warmth, it is also the root source of life. We don’t think much about the sun these days, other than weather-related things, or perhaps in our beach vacation dreams. But we should be careful not to demote the sun below godlike status. The truth is, that yellow ball in the sky has been waiting for a long time, and recently it has found a whole new way to mess with us.

Everyone knows not to stare at the sun because its light output is so strong that it will blow up your eyeballs even from 149 million kilometers away. We also know that the shorter wavelengths of light from the sun, in the ultraviolet spectrum, can damage your skin tissue, causing everything from sunburn to skin cancer. But these are not the dangers I’m going to discuss today. Nor will I talk about the fact that in about 5 billion years, the sun will swell into a red giant star that completely engulfs the Earth—or, at best, boils the oceans and turns our planet into scorched cinders.Instead, today I want to share with you the cosmic anxiety associated with super solar flares known as coronal mass ejections, or CME. If your daily life depends on electricity, the sun is waiting to kill you with CME.

Imagine a fleet of superfast aircraft carriers

The surface of the sun is overheated plasma, magnetic fields, and intense light that strips you of every atom. Magnetic fields form deep within the sun, drawing energy from the rotation of its ionized gas. These areas are very unstable. They change form and character on timescales ranging from minutes to decades. Although they are created deeper in the sun, magnetic field lines appear on the surface of the sun in huge arcs, like a whale. Typically, the arc will rise up from the surface and then fall back down. But sometimes, when the conditions are right, a magnetic ring immersed in hot plasma can detach from the sun’s surface and be blown into space. It’s a coronal mass ejection that could cause big trouble when a person is shot at our planet.

A typical CME would send 1 billion tons of plasma into space with the energy equivalent of a fleet of 200 aircraft carriers traveling at 500 kilometers per second. On any given day, the Sun may send some CMEs into space. Most are harmless to us. Sometimes, though, CMEs hit Earth. When it does, it causes what space scientists now call space weather.

Aurora to hurt us

Before we became a high-tech culture, the CME’s collision with the Earth was not cause for alarm. Quite the contrary, in fact, it may produce beautiful auroral displays. (Auroras are light emissions caused by the flow of charged particles along the Earth’s own magnetic field.)

But now that we are so dependent on electricity, the massive stream of charged particles in the CME is no longer so harmless. CME can affect us in different ways. In the near-space environment of Earth orbit, ionizing radiation from the CME has the ability to knock down satellites and space stations. These space storms are powerful enough to be lethal to astronauts, which is why the space station has a special shielded compartment for them to hide in if a CME strikes.

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But the real problem for you and me is the grid. The magnetism in these space storms can increase the load on power lines, causing power outages. A particularly potent example of this effect occurred on March 13, 1989, when a severe space storm caused a system-wide failure in Quebec. The time between the storm hitting the planet and the complete blackout was 90 seconds, leaving 6 million people without power.

Coronal Mass Ejections: A Nightmare Scenario

So, the nightmarish scenario is that a super CME hits Earth and overwhelms the power grid of an entire continent. If that happens, experts warn it could take months or more to restore power. Such a long recovery time is because there is no large-scale backup facility for all the transformers that need to be replaced. Imagine a six-month blackout across the country – that sounds a lot like the end of the world.

We do know that this super CME does happen. In fact, we might be late for one. On September 1, 1859, when a massive CME slammed into the Earth, the telegraphs around the planet—all connected by wires—began to shoot sparks. Scientists now refer to it as the “Carrington Event,” after astronomers’ observations of the CME that caused this global malfunction. If a Carrington event happened today, most experts agree it would burn out our electricity, GPS and communications systems, leaving us cold, dark and alone. Fortunately, we can prepare for something like this, and hopefully we can do it before the “big guys” hit.

But today’s lesson is simple. If you’re tired of worrying about global warming, pandemics, or political instability, it’s good to know that the sun, our forgotten God, is still ready to attack us.

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