Solar Flares: What Will Happen to Earth with Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) and 2024 Flares?

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Since the beginning of 2024, solar flares have been a prominent topic of discussion, sparking numerous questions. What are the causes and effects of solar flares? Do digital systems experience interruptions? Are all systems, from internet to banking, affected by these flares? Could they trigger earthquakes? The questions are manifold.

2024 Solar Flares

Most recently, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a significant solar flare occurred on March 24, 2024. But what exactly are solar flares, how do they occur, and do they pose a threat to Earth?

Our life source, the Sun, is a hot sphere of gas with a diameter of about 1.5 million kilometers, capable of accommodating approximately 1 million Earths within it. Unlike a campfire, the Sun does not burn in the conventional sense; it doesn’t require oxygen for combustion. The illumination of the Sun is powered by thermonuclear reactions occurring at its core. “Thermo” refers to temperature, while “nuclear” refers to the core. These reactions are atomic-level events dependent on temperature. In the core of stars, temperatures can exceed 10 million degrees, causing atoms to fuse, generating immense energy that illuminates the star. As you read this, every second, about 700 million tons of hydrogen in the Sun’s core are converted into about 695 million tons of helium, releasing energy in the process. The resulting energy output is equivalent to billions of Hiroshima bombs per second. This energy is so intense that atoms essentially collide, forming a particle soup known as plasma. The outermost layer of the Sun’s atmosphere is called the corona and can be easily observed during a total solar eclipse. Sometimes, the corona ejects billions of tons of plasma into space, a phenomenon known as a coronal mass ejection (CME).

Despite our safe distance of approximately 150 million kilometers from the Sun, certain solar events can impact not only our planet but also the farthest reaches of the solar system.

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One of the most significant events is coronal mass ejections, where billions of tons of plasma are ejected into space from the Sun. When the temperature of a gas reaches millions of degrees, it becomes difficult to distinguish which electron belongs to which atom, resulting in a particle soup – plasma. If these mass ejections were to target our planet, they could significantly distort Earth’s magnetic field, leading to a geomagnetic storm.

Earth’s magnetic field acts as a shield, protecting us from the dangers of space. It prevents high-speed charged particles from easily reaching Earth’s surface, forcing them to follow a certain path through space. Think of the planet’s magnetic field as a shield against cosmic threats. A geomagnetic storm occurs when severe solar events cause a significant disruption to Earth’s magnetic field, lasting for hours. During such storms, Earth’s ozone layer, which shields us from harmful ultraviolet radiation, can be damaged. This can affect atmospheric circulation, leading to long-term climatic changes. Additionally, GPS satellites and the ionosphere in our atmosphere may be affected, causing disruptions in radio wave-dependent communication systems. Astronauts in space during a geomagnetic storm may be exposed to significant levels of radiation. Furthermore, the orbits of artificial satellites around Earth may be disturbed.

In conclusion, while the Sun is vital for life on Earth, its activities, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, can have profound effects on our planet and its technological infrastructure, highlighting the importance of understanding and monitoring solar phenomena for the sake of Earth’s safety and resilience.

Why do the magnetic poles of the Sun change places?

The Sun’s magnetic poles undergo a reversal approximately every 11 years. If you’ve ever used a compass, you’re aware that Earth has magnetic poles that also shift over time. This means the red end of the compass needle won’t always point towards geographic north. Earth’s magnetic poles typically reverse every 300,000 years, providing organisms with ample time to adapt. Throughout the billions of years of Earth’s history, there have been numerous mass extinctions, but these are not caused by shifts in magnetic poles. The rapid changes are primarily driven by sunspots, regions on the Sun’s surface that appear darker and cooler compared to the surrounding area. The number of sunspots peaks every 11 years.

Unlike what you might expect, the Sun doesn’t have a solid surface. You can’t walk on its surface as you would in a park. The bright surface you see when you look at the Sun is called the photosphere, or the light sphere. It’s like a shell made of plasma surrounding the Sun. This is what we refer to as the Sun’s surface.

As the number of sunspots increases, so does magnetic activity. This leads to events such as solar flares, coronal mass ejections, intense solar winds, coronal holes, and sudden bursts of radiation known as flares.

We don’t fully understand why the Sun behaves this way or how long it will continue to do so. We have observational data spanning a few hundred years, but to fully understand a star that’s approximately 5 billion years old, such data is insufficient.

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Through geological evidence on Earth’s surface, however, we can infer how the Sun behaved thousands of years ago. Nevertheless, such data is inadequate for a comprehensive understanding of a star as old as ours.

2024 Solar Flares

What happens if we are caught unprepared?

The most severe geomagnetic storm ever recorded due to solar activity was the Carrington Event of 1859. During this event, telegraph lines, the primary communication method of the time, were disrupted for 8 hours, and some telegraph operators were exposed to electric currents.

In a similar event in May 1921, a telephone exchange in the Swedish city of Karlstad caught fire.

In 1989, a powerful geomagnetic storm left 5 million people in the Canadian city of Quebec without electricity for 9 hours in cold weather, causing a $2 billion economic loss.

As of the 21st century, we haven’t experienced an event of this magnitude yet. After a significant coronal mass ejection (CME) event on the Sun in 2012, tons of plasma ejected into space missed our planet by just 9 days! Unfortunately, predicting when such severe CME events will occur is extremely difficult. These events can occur not only during periods of high solar activity but also during quiet times. Events like the Carrington Event occur roughly once every 500 years.

It’s not expected that a strong solar storm would directly affect the human body.

Primarily, everything dependent on electricity, communication, and terrestrial energy distribution systems will be severely affected. If we are caught unprepared for a CME event targeting Earth, our civilization, reliant on electricity, would be significantly impacted.

High-voltage lines would become inoperative due to overload. Water supply systems dependent on electricity could collapse, leading to water shortages.

Hospitals, the internet, and consequently, the banking and finance sectors, as well as the food industry reliant on cooling systems, would be adversely affected. Repairing physical damage to energy transmission lines could take months. This would result in a global economic collapse worth trillions of dollars.

While some studies claim there is a relationship between solar activity and earthquakes on Earth, many other studies have failed to find a significant correlation. The primary source of earthquakes on Earth is its internal structure and plate tectonics.

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Can the life-giving Sun harm Earth?

In scenarios depicting Earth’s destruction, the most crucial topics often revolve around giant asteroids or alien invasions. Besides these, a rogue black hole that could enter the solar system at any moment could also be added to astrophysical extinction scenarios.

I don’t intend to frighten you, but the likelihood of this happening is not zero. However, long before we worry about these grim scenarios, we should focus on the Sun itself.

The Sun, the source of life on our planet, could one day turn into its executioner. After all, predicting the behavior of a star that’s approximately 5 billion years old, based on only a few hundred or thousand years of history, is incredibly challenging. It’s akin to trying to understand a person’s childhood and predict when and why they’ll die by looking at just a few minutes of their health data at the age of 70. Knowing how the Sun will behave is akin to trying to predict when earthquakes will occur.

Throughout the year 2024, we expect intense solar activity to persist. While there may be dire scenarios painted for 2024 on social media, predicting how the Sun will behave in a few weeks or months is extremely difficult. Science can provide a clearer picture of what will happen in just a few days.

Based on the long-standing sunspot cycle that has persisted for centuries, we anticipate the Sun to calm down after 2024, with a decrease in sunspot numbers, eruptions, and mass ejections. We expect activity to increase again around 2030 and reach its maximum around 2035. Thus, the 11-year cycle will repeat itself. This has been the case with the Sun for at least a few hundred years.

It’s important to remember that civilizations unfamiliar with their life-giving star cannot prevent it from ending their lives. One wonders how many civilizations in our galaxy have met their demise for this reason.

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