Solar storms are natural events that occur when high energy particles from the sun hit the earth. They take place when the sun releases energy in the form of outbursts or eruptions. Such outbursts are also called solar flares. Energy is set free and transported to outer space.
Solar storms contain gas and other matter and can travel at extremely high speeds. When such particles hit the Earth or any other planet with an atmosphere they cause a geomagnetic storm - a disturbance in the magnetic field that surrounds our planet. Normally such outbursts are not dangerous. They are the cause of polar lights - bright, colorful lights in the skies in the northern regions.
They may, however, endanger us in other ways. Such outbursts of the sun’s energy can cause communication problems, interfere with satellite reception or lead to incorrect GPS readings. In the past they have even shut down electric power grids. The most damaging events happened in the 19th century when solar storms started fires in North America and Europe. They caused auroras as far south as the equator. Luckily the world did not have the high technological standard we have today. Such forceful eruptions could do much more damage today.
Solar flares - Eruptions in the sun's atmosphere
An American investigation in 2008 showed that extreme solar storms could cause billions of dollars in damage. Several organizations around the world monitor the sun’s activity and the disturbances that occur in its atmosphere. They also have detectors that show variations in the Earth’s magnetic field.
Solar cycles repeat themselves every 11 years. Right now the Earth is experiencing the most severe solar storm since 2003. Sky watchers in Canada and Scandinavia are already reporting sightings of more northern lights than usual. As the sun is currently becoming more active we will see more and more solar flares the next few years. However the solar cycle we are in at the moment is relatively quiet compared to others over the last decades.
The last major problems caused by solar storms occurred in 1994 when communications satellites over Canada malfunctioned and power in many parts of the country went out for a few hours.
When solar storms pass through the earth’s atmosphere radiation levels are higher for a few days Airlines are especially worried about these outbursts of radiation because long distance flights use polar routes, an area where disruptions are most severe. During such storms there are periods when the crew cannot communicate with ground control stations. Astronauts orbiting the earth in the International Space Station may also be in danger because radiation levels are much higher than normal. Outbursts of solar energy even affect animals which are sensitive to changes in Earth’s magnetic field. During such events they lose orientation and get lost.
- The Sun - Center of the Solar System
- The Atmosphere
- IRIS - NASA's New Solar Telescope
- affect = have an effect on
- aurora = bands of colored light that are seen in the night skies of the northern parts of the world
- billion = a thousand million
- cause = lead to
- century = a hundred years
- compared = in contrast to
- contain = have in them
- currently = at the moment
- cycle = events that happen over and over again in the same order
- damage = destruction, harm
- decade = a period of ten years
- detector = machine or device that measures something
- disturbance = something that interferes with the normal activity
- electric power grid = the network of electricity that connects power stations and gives us light and heat
- endanger = to put in danger
- eruption = outbreak
- especially = above all
- extremely = very
- forceful = strong
- GPS = Global Positioning System = system of satellites that you use to show your exact position on Earth
- ground control station = people on the ground who are responsible for guiding the flight of an airplane
- however = but
- incorrect = wrong
- interfere = get in the way of
- investigation = study, examination
- long distance = to travel to far away areas
- malfunction = something that does not work the way it should
- matter =material, substances
- monitor = watch closely
- occur = happen
- orbit = to go around
- outburst = when something suddenly breaks out
- particle = atom; a very small object
- polar = over the poles
- radiation = form of energy which can be harmful in large amounts
- reception = signals
- release = set free
- repeat = happen again
- sensitive = when something is easily affected by
- severe = strong
- shut down = turn off
- sighting = see something
- solar flare = a sudden bright light from the sun
- speed = how fast something is
- standard = level
- surround = around
- variation = change