Solar Storms: A Serious Threat?

Amanda Pierce

Imagine an apocalyptic scene out of a sci-fi thriller. A large, luminous green cloud, a solar storm, approaches the earth. Thunder rumbles deeply from within the cloud as lightening flashes dangerously around it. Earthlings panic as the looming cloud threatens to bring the human race to an end.

Did you know that in a much less dramatic way, a solar storm impacted the earth earlier this month? A solar storm, also known as a geomagnetic storm, is the interaction of an outburst from the sun with earth’s magnetic field. Solar storms have the potential to disrupt critical systems such as satellites, power grids, radios, phones, and navigation systems. The possibility of massive electrical blackouts are also a threat. Geomagnetic storms also have the potential to harm humans and many animals. Solar flares of a large magnitude release high- energy particles that can cause radiation poisoning in mammals that are similar to that of low-energy radiation from a nuclear blast. Radiation poisoning can cause chromosome damage, cancer, and many other health problems. High enough doses of radiation can even cause death. Luckily, the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetosphere provide a suitable amount of protection, but only to a certain extent.

Unlike those on Earth, astronauts are a higher risk of exposure. Such a risk is mainly a concern for astronauts and those flying at high altitudes because they are not as well protected. Risks such as radiation poisoning only occur during massive storms. Earth’s most recent storm, one that came in early March 2012, seemed to be a threat, but fizzled at the last moment. Luckily, nothing occurred and no damage was done. Solar storms can be large and fast, but most are harmless. Expect greater magnetic activity to occur during the next couple of months as we approach the solar maximum in 2013. By 2013, the sun’s magnetic field will reach its 11-year peak.