From time to time we are informed by news organizations about an imminent “massive solar flare” that could affect the internet or even the power grid. It’s theoretically possible, but there’s also a click-bait factor to this murky and ominous reporting.
But first, what is a solar flare? Solar flares are violent bursts or bursts of electromagnetic radiation from the sun. How immense? NASA says it’s “as much energy as a billion one-megaton nuclear weapons.”
Luckily, the sun is far away and space is vast. All of this energy is not concentrated in a finite space for humans to relate to. Instead, the flare dissipates and a solar storm could be heading towards Earth in minutes.
Can it cause serious harm? Yes absolutely. In 1859, telegraph lines caught a fraction of this energy, causing telegraph paper to ignite in some locations in the United States and Europe. In 1972, AT&T experienced some communications disruptions and redesigned its infrastructure to deal with solar storms.
In 1989, six million Canadians were without power for nine hours after a solar flare melted transformers on the grid. These events are grave, but far from the apocalyptic tone of some accounts.
Fortunately, the earth’s surface is protected by its electromagnetic field and atmosphere. Only a tiny fraction of the initial energy gets through to cause the above damage. The most significant solar flare ever recorded occurred on April 2, 2001; Nobody remembers this event.
Damage is now occurring in orbit, where satellites are above the atmosphere and more exposed. There have been a few instances of satellites being damaged by these types of events, but overall, solar flares tend to affect space agencies more than ordinary people on Earth.
In San Francisco, where Ubergizmo is located, we’ve had more power outages due to wildfires or speculation than solar flares. Our internet was down for more than 9 hours because a car hit the street pole with the cables.
Next time you read about the great upcoming solar flare disaster, it will most likely be okay.
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