Solar flares are the biggest explosions in the universe, and the most energetic. They were first discovered by Galileo in the early 17th century, and then later on in 1859 by an English amateur astronomer by the name of Richard Christopher Carrington. Since then, they have not only been observed on the sun, but they have also been viewed on other stars as well.
A solar flare is a large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere that can release as much as 6 × 1025 joules of energy(about a sixth of the total energy output of the sun each second). Although difficult to predict their occurrence with any certainty, the only warning lies in the fact that most proton storms take two or more hours from the time of visual detection to reach earth’s orbit (providing little time to prepare for its impact).
Solar flares are caused by a process called magnetic reconnection whereby opposite magnetic fields on the sun’s surface come together causing a sudden release of energy. Solar flares affect all layers of the solar atmosphere (photosphere, corona, and chromosphere), causing plasma to heat up to tens of millions of kelvins(a unit of measurement of temperature) and accelerating electrons, protons, and heavier ions to near the speed of light. In fact, while the fastest visit to the moon took 8 hours and 38 minutes, solar flares only take a mere 8 minutes to find their way into the earths ionosphere an can have damaging effects. These flares produce radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum at all wavelengths, from radio waves to gamma rays and as a result, can cause damaging effects on the earth such as: Loss of power systems, radiation poisoning, rendering chip ran vehicles powerless, affecting inter-planetary travel for astronauts, as well as cell phones (and other electronics) and satellite interruptions (as well as other systems operating at those frequencies).
Most flares occur in active regions around sunspots (visible dark spots on the photosphere of the sun), where intense magnetic fields penetrate the photosphere (deepest region of the sun) to link the corona (type of plasma atmosphere that extends far into space) to the solar interior. Flares are powered by the sudden release of magnetic energy stored in the corona. If a solar flare is exceptionally powerful, it can cause coronal mass ejections(massive burst of wind, plasma, magnetic energy that is released into space).
Solar activity varies with an 11-year cycle (the solar cycle). At the peak of the cycle there are typically more sunspots on the Sun, and therefore more solar flares. NASA predicts as the sun approaches its 11 year cycle in 2012, when the sun aligns with the milky way galaxy(an event which only occurs approx. every 211,000 years), will increase the amount of solar flares the sun experiences and possibly increased dangers to the earth (due to potential increased coronal mass ejections).
Although solar flares can be troublesome at times, they have also been linked to contributing to the breathtaking northern and southern polar lights phenomenons such as the aurora borealis and aurora australis.
The most notable solar storm in history happened in 1859 (called the Carrington Event named after English amateur astronomer Richard Christopher Carrington)causing telegraph wires in both the United States and Europe to spontaneously short out (lasting 8 days), causing numerous fires, and the phenomena of the Northern Lights to be observed as far south as Rome, Havana and Hawaii. It was recorded that the Northern Lights were so bright, one could read the newspaper solely from its illumination. Most recently, a 1994 solar storm caused major malfunctions to two communications satellites, disrupting newspaper, network television and nationwide radio service throughout Canada.
Whether the sun will be in its active or quiet period on or before 2012, scientists can only predict. The fact remains that solar storms occur almost daily and are very much a part of our existence. The National Academy of Sciences report says a giant solar event could induce ground currents that would knock out 300 key transformers within about 90 seconds. Like with any impending threats to the earth, it is always a good idea to hold fast to the old addage,”it’s better to be safe than sorry” and be prepared by informing yourself on how to survive a massive solar storm.