We’re alerted by news organizations now and then about an impending “massive solar flare” that might fry the Internet or even the electric grid. In theory, it’s possible, but there’s also a click-bait factor to this gloom and doom coverage.
But first, what’s a solar flare? Solar flares are immense bursts, or eruptions, of electromagnetic radiation from the Sun. How immense? NASA says it’s “as much energy as a Billion one-megaton nuclear weapons.”
Fortunately, the Sun is far, and space is vast. All that energy is not concentrated in a finite space human can relate to. Instead, the flare will dissipate, and a solar storm might head toward earth in minutes.
Can it do some severe damage? Yes, absolutely. In 1859 telegraph lines caught a fraction of this energy, leading to telegraph paper igniting in some places in the U.S and Europe. In 1972, AT&T experienced some communications shutdowns and redesigned its infrastructure to cope with solar storms.
In 1989, six million Canadians were left without power for nine hours after a solar flare melted transformers in the grid. These events are severe but nowhere near the apocalyptic tone of some reports.
Fortunately, the earth’s surface is protected by its electromagnetic field and atmosphere. Only a tiny portion of the initial energy reaches through to cause the damage mentioned above. The most significant solar flare ever recorded happened on April 2, 2001; no one remembers that event.
Now, damages tend to happen in orbit, where satellites are above the atmosphere and more exposed. There were some instances of satellites being damaged by this type of event, but overall, solar flares concern space agencies rather than the ordinary person on earth.
In San Francisco, where Ubergizmo is located, we’ve had more electricity shutdowns due to wildfire or speculation than solar flares. Our Internet went down for more than 9 hours because a car ran into the street pole carrying the cables.
Next time you read about the big upcoming solar flare catastrophe, it will most likely be all right.