If you could enjoy a relaxing, warm, sunny day on the beach, then oh do I have news for you: the feeling is pretty universal. But before you roll out the towel and sunscreen, you should probably know that that very Sun could whip out a massive solar flare and kill every person, animal, plant, and thing on Earth in one single instant, at any given moment. Still feel like relaxing?
Solar flares happen all the time. And for the most part, they’re pretty uneventful. It’s the big ones that happen about ten times a year that truly catch and deserve our attention. A solar flare is a huge, explosive release of magnetic energy on the surface of the sun. The sun’s magnetic fields are complex, intertwining, and ever-changing. And sometimes when those fields intersect, pressure builds and eventually releases jets of electrons, ions, and atoms - more energetic than millions of hundred-megaton bombs going off at once.
Most of them are moderate, and categorized as an M-class flare. The special ones are what we call an X-class flare - the most energetic kind - and one we saw in March of 2014 was what astronomers call the best-observed solar flare in history.
Four different space telescopes and one ground-based observatory were all focused on the sun when the flare happened, and together, they were able to monitor different features, observing it in different wavelengths, to give us a fuller-than-ever picture of a solar flare. Thanks to some excellent planning, astronomers with The National Solar Observatory in California, Japan's Hinode satellite, and a whole alphabet of NASA telescopes (including RHESSI, a small one from my hometown in the high desert) were able to coordinate in advance to focus their instruments on the same, active region of the sun that was looking like it was gonna blow.
Radiation from a solar flare is absorbed in Earth's atmosphere, thanks to these nifty barriers called the Van Allen Belts, so it doesn’t harm us directly. But it can disturb things like GPS and communications signals, which circulate in the outer atmosphere, not to mention astronauts in orbit. So the better we understand solar flares, the better we can be at preparing for them. They’re now studying that data to better understand exactly what catalyzes this release of pressure, and hopefully predict when the next big one will happen.
Thankfully, none so far have been able to cause real damage for life on Earth. However, the likelihood of one happening is not impossible. So whether you support the preservation of human life, or if the breakup of One Direction still has you so torn that you're ready for the natural catastrophe to hit and put an end to all this suffering - we'll just have to wait and see.
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Sources: This story was originally published on SciShow Space. I am republishing a lightly edited version on SkyFeed in light of interest in the subject. Green, Hank. "The Strongest Solar Flare in Over a Decade." SciShow Space, YouTube, 25 May 2014. Web video.
Citation: Rovira, Lia N. "Could a Solar Flare Extinguish Life on Earth?" SkyFeed, 6 March 2018. Web article.