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Five of the Largest Recorded Solar Flares and the Havoc They Wreaked

by Elizabeth Cullum 2 years ago in astronomy

A Look into the Effects of Solar Flares on Earth

via NASA

According to NASA, a solar flare is a “sudden explosion of energy caused by a tangling, crossing, or reorganizing of magnetic field lines near sunspots.” Of course, sunspots are those dark spots on the surface of the sun. Throughout time, solar flares have occurred periodically and have caused problems for us, especially once we became more technologically evolved.

We don’t always notice when solar flares occur, but according to NASA, the sun’s activity increases towards what is known as “solar maximum.” This happens about every eleven years, so chances are if you’re reading this, you’ve experienced solar maximum at least once in your life. When solar flares occur, the heat, energetic particles, and electromagnetic radiation can reach Earth and cause varied effects.

The upper atmosphere, satellite signal transmission, and many other things can be affected by bursts from solar flares. We can also measure an increase in x-rays and sometimes notice a flash of light. Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can also happen alongside solar flares. CMEs are massive explosions of plasma and gas that are shot from the sun at millions of miles per hour. While there is generally nothing to worry about here on Earth, solar flares and CMEs can wreak at least a little havoc on things on this big blue marble. Here are five of the biggest solar flares ever recorded, and the effects we experienced.

September 1, 1859

Richard Carrington, a British solar astronomer of the time, was observing the sun with his personal telescope in a private observatory to sketch sunspots when a solar flare occurred. And this wasn’t just any flare, but the first record of a flare affecting Earth. It was also one of the largest recorded in the last 500 years. Auroras formed and were seen as far as the Caribbean. Telegraph operators reported getting shocked, some sparks from the system caused fires when discharges ignited the paper, and telegraph signals were interrupted.

August 4, 1972

The Vietnam War is a sour spot in American history, and a lot happened during that time. It lasted from 1955 to 1975 and included Laos and Cambodia. However, one thing that happened during this time is often overshadowed by the rest of the events occurring. On August 4, 1972, US airmen were flying over Vietnam when they witnessed something they couldn’t explain. A solar flare caused dozens of sea mines south of Hai Phong to detonate, wreaking absolute havoc around the globe. US military systems registered the energy spike flung from our sun and initially thought that someone had set off a nuclear weapon. Electric and communication grids were disrupted by the solar explosions going on. People were in a panic, thinking that the war had escalated to an alarming level.

In reality, four solar flares had erupted from August 2 through August 4, and the geomagnetic fields were in disarray. Magnetized gas particles were ejected from the sun, making it to Earth in 15 hours (this normally takes around 3 days). This major event even caused AT&T to completely redesign their power system after their long-distance service was shut down completely across several states.

July 14, 2000

Bastille Day occurs on July 14th annually in France. It marks the storming of Bastille prison and the start of the French Revolution. It is typically celebrated with fireworks and parades, similar to the US’s Fourth of July. However, in 2000, it was also the day of a powerful and violent solar storm. Plasma on the sun was heated to 36-54 million degrees Fahrenheit, and some of those plasma particles were shot from the sun out into space to become a CME, traveling around 1500 kilometers per second.

NASA’s Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope on the SOHO satellite was bombarded, overwhelmed by the blast. Imaging was completely blocked and the telescope could no longer record any readings that were useful. Other satellites short-circuited as well. Radios blacked out. Everywhere on Earth that was facing the sun experienced similar effects. This was the biggest solar flare recorded, until...

October 31, 2003

According to NASA, 2003 produced the scariest solar storms that began on October 19 and lasted until November 7. While most of the other flares and CMEs occurred at the height of the sun’s 11-year cycle when the solar maximum is reached, these storms happened 2-3 years after the solar maximum had occurred. Earth’s magnetic field was bombarded, and the effects we saw here were certainly worthy of the Halloween timing of the storms.

Air traffic controllers reported that multiple flights had to be re-routed as satellite and communication systems were interrupted. In Sweden, a power outage affected residents for about an hour. Even NASA and other international space agencies suffered the effects. Multiple satellites and space science missions began to suffer. The satellites temporarily failed and were damaged, and instruments aboard mission craft were had to be shut down to avoid damage (or worsened damage). One effect, however, was something many had enjoyed seeing (and for many, this was the only time they would see it in their life)...auroras bloomed in the atmosphere, seen as close to the equator as Florida, and some were bright enough to cast shadows.

September 6, 2017

In the early morning hours (EDT) of September 6, 2017, two flares erupted from the sun. The first was small compared to others in this story. Almost three hours later, however, a CME erupted that was enormous, launching plasma loops that were larger than several Earths. The solar cycle during this time began in 2008 and was unusually inactive until this event occurred. While the massive 2003 flare hit Earth at an angle, this one hit Earth head-on, causing more problems than the bigger 2003 CME.

High-frequency radio waves were knocked out, and once again GPS and communications were interrupted. On the 7th and 8th scientists measured what Advancing Earth and Space Science called “severe geomagnetic storming” in their analysis of the flare. AGU also noted that an increase in electrons in the atmosphere was potentially what caused the interruptions of GPS and high-frequency radio waves. What’s worst about the radio blackouts that lasted for hours is that this affected the hurricane relief efforts as three storms bore down on the US and Caribbean. French airmen reported 90 minutes of communications blackouts while transporting cargo.

All in all, solar flares are amazing events that are a wonder to behold, releasing energy that is comparable to a billion hydrogen bombs. They can create beautiful images and auroras, but they can also cause problems for us here on Earth. But fear not! NASA confirms that they pose no danger to us biologically, and seem to only cause minor technological issues that typically only last a couple of hours at most. The current solar cycle began this year and isn’t expected to reach its height until 2025.


Elizabeth Cullum

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