Solar Flares and Coronal Mass Ejections

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We often hear about “solar storms” or how a solar flare is hitting the Earth, but what, exactly, are they?

The term, “Solar Storm,” can refer to either a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection, or CME.  While they can have similar effects on the Earth, one has the potential for doing much greater damage.  They are explained below.

Solar Flares

Solar flares are highly energized particles that contain all the waves of light, including X-ray and Gamma rays. They are dangerous, but the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs this energy and radiation and shields us from most of the damaging effects.  For humans and electronics outside of the Earth’s protection, like those in space or even at high altitudes (this includes airplane altitudes), the danger is greater.

Typically, what we see is that the satellites in space get hit with these highly-charged particles and rays and can get damaged.  For humans, if you were traveling in an airplane at trans-atlantic altitudes during a flare, you would receive radiation equal to that of several chest X-rays.  Once you completely leave the Earth’s atmosphere, though, the radiation can be much higher.

Some interesting facts about solar flares:

  • Flares take about 8 minutes to reach earth, as they travel at nearly the speed of light.
  • Solar flares can knock out radio communications, typically in the HF and short-wave bands.
  • Flares are not viewable in the visible spectrum.

As preppers, though, solar flares aren’t an issue that we would be concerned with.

Coronal Mass Ejections or CMEs

A coronal mass ejection is exactly what it sounds like.  It’s a part of the surface of the sun explodes into space. These are caused by the highly fluctuating magnetic fields of the Sun which sometimes collapse and allow coronal matter to be ejected.  CMEs can cause quite serious effects here on Earth.

They can travel at speeds of more than 7 million miles per hour, and the cloud of hot plasma and charged particles and can be up to 220 billion pounds in size.  Most people have difficulty visualizing how big a CME can be.  This picture is of a CME from June, 2011.

CMEs can take anywhere from 1 to 5 days to reach Earth, though typically in the 18 – 36 hour range.  This means there will, or should, be some warning of their approach.

Another way of thinking of a CME is a magnetic shockwave. When this shockwave hits the Earth, our magnetic field reacts to it. If you’ve ever played with magnets, you can get an idea of what happens.

When you bring a magnet near another magnet, they want to reorientate themselves to align with each other. The same thing happens when the magnetic shockwave of a CME hits Earth; our magnetic field fluctuates and shifts unpredictably. As you may know, fluctuating magnetic fields can induce electricity into anything that can conduct electricity, like long stretches of wires and pipes.

When large CMEs impact the Earth’s magnetosphere, it can cause issues with anything electrical.  This has happened in the past:

  • In 1859, a CME impacted the earth and caused telegraphs to short out, causing fires in the US and Europe.
  • In 1972, a “solar flare” knocked out long distance phone communication in some states.
  • In 1989, another CME knocked out the power to an entire Canadian province, leaving six million people without electricity for nine hours.
    • According to NASA, the flare disrupted electric power transmission from the Hydro Québec generating station and even melted some power transformers in New Jersey.
    • Experts say that the 1859 impact was 3 times stronger than the one in 1989.
  • July 14, 2000 – an X5 solar flare caused some satellites to short-circuit and led to some radio blackouts.
  • On Oct. 28, 2003, the sun released an X45 strength flare that overpowered the spacecraft monitoring it.
  • Dec. 5, 2006, an X9 flare disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation signals for about 10 minutes,” according to a NASA.

Here’s a quote from from September 2009:

The solar storm of 1859 was three times more powerful than one that cut power to an entire Canadian province in 1989. Experts say if it happened today – and it could – the result might be unthinkable.  If a storm that severe occurred today, it could cause up to $2 trillion in initial damages by crippling communications on Earth and fueling chaos among residents and even governments in a scenario that would require four to 10 years for recovery, according to a report earlier this year by the National Academy of Sciences. For comparison, hurricane Katrina inflicted somewhere between $80 billion and $125 billion in damage.

The big difference between flares and CMEs is that there’s no warnings with flares, as they travel near the speed of light, and that CMEs can take out power grids, whereas flares typically only affect radio communications on earth.

As a prepper, the thing that a CME can wipe out the United States’ power grid, just like an EMP attack would.  If this damage was widespread, it would take months or years to get the electricity flowing again.

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3 Responses to Solar Flares and Coronal Mass Ejections

  1. Pingback: Episode 120 – EMP and EMP Protection Part 1 | The Preparedness Podcast

  2. Pingback: EMP vs. CME Part II: Different Impact Effects

  3. Pingback: Coronal Mass Ejection Warning | Frontier Centre For Public Policy

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