On Tuesday, a burst left the Sun and started hurtling towards Earth. The result, what is called a coronal mass ejection (CME), is expected to be the largest solar storm that our planet has experienced in the last five years. Being that the year is 2012, any time that our star gives a slight hiccup people start to think that the apocalypse is near. The same goes for any natural disaster including earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and so forth. But do not fret, denizens of Earth, this latest solar storm will not be the end of civilization as we know it.
CMEs are a relatively frequent occurrence. Yet, as far as solar storms are concerned though, this is a big one. CMEs are caused during peaks of the solar cycle when magnetic poles become entangled and eventually burst. Well, that is the extremely simple version of the reason there are solar flares.
The Sun rotates but not in such a way as a planet does. The Earth rotates in one direction on a very specific schedule. The Sun rises in the East, sets in the West. It is, quite literally, clockwork. The Sun is different. It has four different zones that each rotate in opposite directions. After a period of years, those directions will switch. With all of this constant change, the magnetic connections between the poles of the star create tensions and tie themselves into knots. When those knots burst is when we get CMEs.
See the chart from NASA below.
This current solar storm erupted on Tuesday and hits the Earth today and tomorrow, March 8-9. The CME sent particles flying at about 4 million miles per hour.
This is where people who are inclined to believe in apocalyptic events get worried. As we noted earlier this year when NASA posted a FAQ about potential apocalyptic events, solar storms are highly unlikely to cause the end of civilization. One theory, which is also the premise of the movie 2012, is that radiation from the Sun will melt the mantle of the Earth causing continental plates to drift with no anchor to disastrous results. That is not, nor ever will be, the case.
"Solar activity has a regular cycle, with peaks approximately every 11 years. Near these activity peaks, solar flares can cause some interruption of satellite communications, although engineers are learning how to build electronics that are protected against most solar storms. But there is no special risk associated with 2012. The next solar maximum will occur in the 2012-2014 time frame and is predicted to be an average solar cycle, no different than previous cycles throughout history," NASA's FAQ states.
So, what is going to happen with with today's solar storm? There could be some power outages as the electricity infrastructure sees some spikes in currents. Some GPS service will be interrupted and some international flights, especially those passing over the poles, will have their instruments effected. There will also be some aurora activity (what we call the "Northern Lights") in lower latitudes than would normally be found. In a couple of days this will all be done and most people on the planet will be none the wiser.
Image credits: NASA/SDO