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The Sun and Its CMEs: Fearsome Power Facing Earth’s Civilization

~ The Planet’s Source of Life Can Also Devastate Modern Society ~
by Eric McLamb

The greatest threat to Earth sits right at the heart of our solar system. The warm, life-giving nuclear factory we call the Sun is essential to all life as we know it, yet it is millions of times more violent and destructive than any other force our planet faces.

The Sun is a nuclear furnace 93 million miles from Earth and the planets primary source of life. It is also the most destructive force that Earth faces. (Image: nasa.ecology.com)

This is the same Sun that eradicated the atmosphere on Mars some four billion years ago when that planet lost its magnetic field (remember this!). Earth sits much closer to the Sun than Mars does and is thus more intensely subjected to the Sun’s formidable power. Not only does the Sun generate temperatures on its surface upwards of more than 10,000° F (5,538° C), but its core temperature is over 27 million degrees Fahrenheit (15 million degrees Celsius)! 

It is at the center of the Sun where its fuel, hydrogen, fuses to create helium in a nuclear fusion process (like the plutonium atomic bomb that was used at the end of World War II) and is the ultimate source of its fierce energy in the form of light, heat and other radiation. This process is why life thrives on our planet… but it is also why life is impossible on others and constantly poses dangers to Earth itself.

The “Goldilocks” Zone of Life

The key to life on Earth is that it is in the Goldilocks Zone as many scientists like to call it. It is not too close to the Sun, and it is not too far away… its average distance from the Sun (just under 93 million miles/150 million kilometers) is just right for Earth to create optimum conditions for life.  

At 93 million miles from the Sun, Earth lies at the perfect distance for life as we know it. Of the thousands of planets outside the solar system so far, none have been identified with the ability to harbor life as we know it. (Image: Nasa)

While the Sun constantly blankets Earth with its warmth and energy, it also emits harmful radiation. Most of the harmful rays are in the form of ultraviolet radiation (this is what causes Sunburns), but they also include x-rays and extremely dangerous gamma radiation. While some of these rays actually make it to Earth’s surface, Earth’s atmosphere – including its magnetosphere — serves to absorb and shield most of these harmful rays from life on and above the surface while also retaining life-sustaining levels of warmth and energy. These normal processes and relationships have evolved and existed since Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago.

But with the Sun’s constant stream of heat and energy comes an overwhelming phenomenon so powerful that it can totally wipe out all possibility of life on Earth as it did on Mars. And it would were it not for the earth’s magnetic field which shields the planet’s surface from these massive solar occurrences

The Power of A Billion Hydrogen Bombs

This CME erupted into space on August 31, 2012 at 900 miles per second and glancing off Earth’s magnetic field in 3 days on September 3. CMEs can be several thousand times larger than Earth, similar to the above photo comparison. (Image: Nasa)

Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are violent ejections of solar gas, plasma and electromagnetic radiation that can propel more than ten billion tons of solar matter outward from the Sun’s atmosphere with the power of over a billion hydrogen bombs. (Source: China’s State Key Laboratory of Space Weather and University of California, Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory) They can extend billions of miles into space. Once jettisoned from the Sun’s hold, they can accelerate to several million miles per hour and can reach Earth within one to three days.The more powerful CMEs travel much faster and are the most destructive. They can also be millions of times larger than the earth itself. When a massive CME reaches the distance of Earth’s orbit around the Sun, they can be well over 45 million miles in diameter, about half of the distance between the earth and the Sun and nearly 6,000 times larger than Earth’s diameter!

“CMEs are huge events,” says Dr. Jeffrey Newmark, Solar Physics Scientist in NASA’s Heliophysics Division. “They have been hitting Earth since it formed and will continue to hit our planet. Every few weeks a CME hits our planet, but they have been small and have relatively little impact.”

However, most CMEs that hit Earth do not make direct impact

It is the immense coronal mass ejection that hits Earth head-on that would spell major trouble for modern society’s way of life. Even today, the smaller CME events shut down satellites and global communications systems, as well as interrupt airline control and electric power grids. A massive CME would be exponentially more dangerous.

Most CMEs rocket harmlessly through space; however, about 30 of them hit Earth every year with most of them skimming off the planet’s atmosphere. A direct hit from a very large CME is a one-in-100-year event according to solar research at NASA and the European Space Agency.

Low Probability, but Possible at Anytime

Video of the massive CME of August 31, 2012, was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) from Noon to 1:45 AM – EDT the next morning. The Sun generates between 3-5 CMEs per day during the height of the solar cycle.  (Video Courtesy: NASA)

“The probability of a massive CME directly hitting Earth is pretty low, but still it could happen at any time,” says Dr. Newmark. But if and when a CME hits Earth head on, he says, the results could be catastrophic to modern human society. 
The frequency of CMEs varies according to the solar activity cycles which have an average duration of about 11 years. At the height of each cycle, two to three CMEs are generated per day whereas at the low end of the cycle there is an occurrence of about one per week. Right now, we are at about the peak of the solar cycle,” said Dr. Newmark. “But the frequency of CMEs does not mean one cannot hit Earth directly at any time.”

Not only could the costs of such a direct hit by a massive CME range into the trillions of dollars, but it would set back the progress of society many years. The entire technology infrastructure on which human life has become totally dependent – from electricity and power generation to communications, business transactions, healthcare, commerce, agriculture and other critical infrastructures of modern society – would be decimated and take many years to recover. General electricity throughout the world would all of sudden be widely wiped out and it would take years to restore.

A Solar Revolution?

Earth’s magnetosphere is shaped by the magnetic field and deflects most harmful radiation away from and around the planet as seen here. Without it, earth would be toast! Read more about Earth’s Shield of Life… (Image: European Space Agency).

 “We would likely see a return to civilization’s status at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, ” says Dr. Jack C. Hall, founding Char of the Department of Environmental Sciences at University of North Carolina Wilmington. “When all the technology that makes up the backbone of human’s life systems are shut down, we practically will be starting over from the days of the start of the Industrial Revolution.” 

A CME setback in today’s technological society to the scale of the early years of the Industrial Revolution “will likely launch a new technological revolution that relies on renewable energy such as solar power,” Dr. Hall said.  ”A massive CME could essentially render our reliance on fossil fuels impractical, leading us to rely primarily on solar, wind and geothermal sources for our energy needs.   Were we to be reliant on these immediately renewable forms of energy, should a CME fry today’s energy grids, we could basically go back to our power sources. Specifically, if we depended on the Sun primarily, and a massive CME hits Earth head on, the relevant technology could likely allow society to resume its functions in a short period of time; still, we have to be concerned about protecting out satellite and communications infrastructure.”

Just knowing that such an occurrence is possible — and certainly probable at some point in the future — should make society rethink how to best prepare for the advent of a massive CME by looking even more seriously at the use of solar and other renewable energy at the personal and industrial levels, according to Dr. Hall. “It’s not a simple thing to do, but it is a future necessity.”

Though the probability may be low that a massive, human life-altering CME will hit Earth directly, it has happened in the past as well as there have been numerous near misses. While the Sun constantly radiates its electrically charged solar wind in all directions, CMEs are single creations of solar activity that are beamed out in one direction. 

From that perspective, Earth is but a small dot in a massive universe millions of miles away. So the chance that a CME would head precisely in Earth’s direction is mathematically low. The downside to that is the Sun generates a lot of them and sometimes they are massive, and they connect. 

Solar Super Storm of 1859

On September 2, 1859, the largest solar storm ever recorded propelled an intensely powerful CME directly at Earth. The CME from the Solar Storm of 1859 (also referred to as the Solar Super Storm of 1859) created perhaps the most prolific auroras (natural atmospheric lights generated by the interaction between Earth’s magnetic field and the electromagnetically charged radiation from the Sun) seen on the planet extending from both the north magnetic pole as far south as Cuba and the south magnetic pole as far north as Queensland, Australia. 

But it also knocked out the leading technology of the day throughout all North America and Europe: the global telegraph system. The CME was so strong it literally gave telegraph operators electric shocks and created auroras more brilliant than the moon.  

Fortunately, technology was not nearly as advanced and essential to human life then as it has become today. The Industrial Revolution had only begun to take root in human society that would eventually pave the way for today’s highly developed technologically dependent society. In fact, the first electricity producing utility companies would not be established until nearly two decades later.

Recent Near Miss

In more recent history, on July 23, 2012, the Sun hurled a rapid succession of coronal mass ejections directly through Earth’s orbit. According to scientists Dr. Ying D. Liu of China’s State Key Laboratory of Space Weather and research physicist Janet G. Luhmann at the University of California at Berkeley, this CME would have made a direct impact on Earth had the CME arrived at Earth’s orbit nine days earlier. This CME was so powerful that it reached Earth’s orbit in 19 hours. 

The CME of August 31, 2012 produced this huge, brilliant aurora over Whitehorse, Yukon in Canada. It did not hit Earth directly but contacted its magnetic field. (Photo: NASA, courtesy Joseph Bradley)

Should a CME of the magnitude of the one that erupted from the Solar Storm of 1859 or the near-miss CME on July 23, 2012, hit Earth head on today, modern civilization would be severely disrupted. The technologies that essentially support and enable human life today would be fried by the immense solar force, overwhelming the earth’s protective magnetic field. 

Earth’s ‘Shield’ Against CMEs

It is Earth’s magnetic field that forms a “protective cocoon” called the magnetosphere that shields the planet from these high energy particles. “CMEs do not pose any direct threats to humans or our ecology, rather their impacts can be felt in our high technology,” says Dr. Newmark.

Although the planet’s magnetic field protects Earth from harmful radiation, it is not strong enough to ward off the full intense electromagnetic impact of a massive CME. The magnetic field would continue to work which is why you would see the brilliant Northern and Southern Auroras like those that appeared during the 1859 solar storm. About the same amount of solar energy would hit the planet as it did then. The difference is that today there is an extraordinarily advanced level of human technology and innovation that would be exposed and highly vulnerable to the power of a massive CME. 

“Earth generates its own shield with its magnetic field,” says Dr. Weijia Kuang, Geophysicist and Applied Mathematician for NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “When solar winds come to Earth, they will be deflected because of the magnetic field, causing the charged particles to move away from the earth. The magnetic field is the planet’s primary shielding not only from solar wind and CME activity but harmful cosmic rays and similar activity from interstellar sources as well.”

But the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field is relatively weak in general. Compared to a strong, common refrigerator magnet, the earth’s magnetic field would range from about 25 – 65 percent of the strength of the magnet — stronger at the poles and weaker in-between the poles. Still, the magnetic field is currently strong enough to shield Earth from the regular occurrences of solar and related interstellar electromagnetic radiation. 

But Earth’s magnetic field is currently weakening according to Dr. Kuang.

“The magnetic field can only protect the earth but so much,” he said. But he explains that the magnetic field has been weakening for about the last hundred years or so indicating that a reversal of the magnetic poles may currently be in the making. It is during this time that the field is at its weakest point. When the last complete reversal took place before the development of human society, scientists have determined Earth’s magnetic field dropped to five percent of its current strength.

“The weakening of the field is a natural process,” according to Dr. Kuang, stating that Earth’s magnetic poles typically take about 200,000 – 300,000 years to reverse or flip with each other, although it has been twice that long since the last reversal. “If the field continues to weaken, in time we will see more and more disturbances or events that could be harmful to human activity… somewhere between disaster and disturbances. The weaker the field, the closer the shield gets to us, and thus the more that electrical particles can get to us.”

“We Can Get Prepared” – The Earth Will Be Fine

The bottom line is this: Earth’s surface and life will generally not be directly affected by a massive CME, but the technology on which today’s modern civilization is absolutely dependent could be devastated if one were to hit Earth head on especially if the magnetic field is in a weak state. 

Earth view at night from the international Space Station. It is human technology that can be shut down by a massive CME strike, yet that same technology can be applied to protect it. (Photo: NASA-Johnson Space Center)

 “But we can get prepared for what happens,” Dr. Kuang concludes. “Just like an earthquake, we cannot create them, but if we know when and where they will occur we can take preventive action to reduce or eliminate damages and loss.”

NASA’s Dr. Newmark summed it up in very plain terms. “Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years… CMEs have been hitting Earth for 4.5 billion years. It’s pretty safe to say the earth itself will not care much.” 

But humankind will care. The difference is in the technological infrastructure that dominates human life today. That same innovation can and should be used to protect mankind’s technological society with the understanding of our exposure to the Sun’s most powerful threatening hold over our planet… maybe long odds and maybe not, but very real.Icon

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Did You Know…?

  • The energy of one CME could power human society for two million years. (Source: NASA Ames Research Center)
  • The Earth intercepts about 70 coronal mass ejections per year when solar activity is at its peak, and less than 10 will have the punch needed to produce large, geomagnetic storms. (Center for Science & Mathematics Teaching, Tufts University)
  • The Sun still has 99.9% of its energy left, burning hydrogen to create helium.
  • So far 1,709 planets have been confirmed to exist outside our solar system orbiting other stars. Of those, less than two dozen could support life like Earth but this is not known. There are indications that another 2,903 planets exist – mostly found through the Kepler Space Observatory, but await confirmation through other sources.