The number of massive eruptions of the sun is increasing. If such a solar storm hits Earth, we will be catapulted “back to the Stone Age.”
“It’s possible at any time that a very extreme solar storm could occur, and it could have far-reaching consequences,” warns Melanie Heil of ESA’s Space Weather Mission in Darmstadt, Germany. But how bad could it get if the distant sun is hissing in our direction? Very bad!
“If such a solar storm reaches Earth, it can temporarily throw us back to the technological Stone Age,” is the urgent warning from ESA science director Günther Hasinger in a “Spiegel” interview about a possible extreme case.
“If the solar storm hits areas with sensitive infrastructure, it can paralyze power and mobile networks. Digital communications break down, and hospitals and nuclear power plants must rely on emergency generators.” Widespread blackouts, communications outages and the failure of numerous battery-powered devices would result.
Even before that, satellites would be hit. Solar particles could trigger voltage spikes in electronics and, thus, a failure of satellite navigation or television.
“In addition, solar storms endanger the lives of astronauts. The charged particles can damage human genetic material and promote cancer,” says ESA expert Hasinger.
Currently, our sun is also becoming increasingly stormy. Our life-giving central star is a gigantic reactor with cycles whose activity will increase more and more in the coming years. This also manifests in an increased occurrence of so-called sunspots, which are our warning signal for a possible catastrophe.
Eruptions and coronal mass ejections occur more and more often. These chase vast amounts of charged particles into space. When the shock wave front of such a solar wind hits the Earth’s magnetic field, it is called a solar storm. These cause a light spectacle in the upper atmosphere in the form of intense auroras, which can sometimes even be observed in central Europe.
The Earth’s magnetic field protects us between the poles from this cosmic bombardment. But in extreme cases, it can be deformed by a storm of charged particles, so they also reach the ground. Then the consequences described by Hassinger threaten. There’s not much we can do to protect against that, either.
“If we recognize extreme eruptions in time, we have eight hours to two days until the particles hit the Earth. By then, for example, the power supply can be cut back to the bare minimum to prevent damage to running equipment,” explains the ESA expert.
Ten years ago, the Earth only narrowly escaped an absolute disaster scenario. In July 2012, the sun hurled trillions of tons of magnetized plasma in our direction shortly after our planet left the firing path. According to NASA, this solar storm would have powered everything electrically out of action.
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