Solar flares are energetic explosions of radiation released from the surface of the sun. Coronal mass ejections — solar explosions that release extremely hot streams of plasma into space — can cause solar flares to reach the Earth’s surface.
Although rare, powerful solar flares have the potential to cause damaging magnetic storms on Earth; in the past, they have triggered regional blackouts.
There are telltale signs of an impending solar flare, but scientists have recently discovered a new way of predicting coronal mass ejections. The answer lies in the sun.
What Happens When a Solar Flare Erupts?
Scientists already know that some eruptive solar flares have warning signs. Often, they are preceded by arches of plasma — magnetic flux ropes — that visibly rise from the surface of the sun, according to Space.com.
However, scientists have made a new discovery, recently published in Nature, about how solar flares occur and erupt. After careful research and observation, a team of scientists located the presence of what they call “magnetic cages,” which might explain why some eruptive solar flares reach Earth and others do not.
According to the study, magnetic cages are structures made of magnetic field lines that rise from the sun’s surface. Before a dangerous flare, a magnetic flux rope grows under a solar arcade. If the rope develops a kink and becomes unstable, a burst of energy might blast through the cage, leading to coronal mass ejections that have the potential to reach Earth. If the cage is more substantial, however, NASA explained that the flare may not be able to blast through.
“Our results show that the role of the cage, and thus of the environment, crucially affects the class of eruption … that can be produced in an active region,” the study authors wrote in Nature.
What Are Solar Flare Effects?
The Earth rarely experiences solar flare effects, yet they can have dramatic effects when they occur. In 1859, a plume of magnetized plasma shot 93 million miles from the sun to the Earth in less than a day. Known as the Carrington Event, it is the largest geomagnetic storm in history, according to Motherboard.
Based on information from FEMA, Motherboard speculates that if a storm of that magnitude hit the Earth today, GPS signals, telecommunications and electricity would be in serious danger.
On March 10, 1989, astronomers witnessed a powerful solar flare on the surface of the sun that created a blackout in all of Quebec. This explosion released a billion-ton cloud of gas; NASA noted that this would be like the energy of thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time.
Companies like Northrop Grumman have joined forces with the Space Weather and Analysis Forecast System to monitor space weather’s effect on military operations.
Can We Prepare for Solar Flares?
Scientists cannot stop these coronal mass ejections from happening. However, if scientists learn to predict coronal mass ejections, humans can take preventative measures here on Earth.
“Shedding light on the origin and evolution of solar flares could help scientists forecast how powerful these explosions occur, which could help experts prevent widespread havoc on earth,” according to Space.com.
Survivalist websites, like Ready.gov, recommend taking precautions against solar flares just as you would for any other natural disaster: learn to purify water, and keep an emergency kit on hand with flashlights, medical supplies and non-perishable foods.
If you’re interested in a career path that monitors space weather’s effect on military operations and other exciting areas, click here to search jobs at Northrop Grumman.