It’s easy to take the Sun for granted. Every morning, it rises in the East and every evening it sets in the West. And unless it’s blocked by inclement weather, you can count on it shining day in and day out. So, you might be surprised to learn that there is a lot more activity happening on the surface of the Sun than you might think –– and that includes solar storms!
But what is a solar storm, and why does it matter? The Sun is a remarkable source of space weather, and its activity can have a direct impact on the Earth. Below, we’ll explain various types of solar activity, including solar storms, and its impact on the Earth.
Types of Solar Storm Events
When it comes to the question of what is a solar storm, the answer is a little complicated. When referring to a solar storm, we are really talking about one or more of the following solar events: coronal mass ejections, solar wind, solar energetic particles, and solar flares. Each of these events is generated by the solar magnetic field.
- Coronal mass ejections, known as CMEs, are clouds of magnetic fields and plasma that can explode anywhere on the Sun and into any direction. Typically, unless the cloud is exploding in the direction of the Earth, it will not have any direct impact on the Earth’s atmosphere.
- Solar winds are produced from coronal holes, which can be generated anywhere on the surface of the Sun. If these solar winds happen near the solar equator, they can potentially reach Earth.
- Solar energetic particles are released near the front of CMEs as it moves through solar winds along the path of magnetic field lines.
- Solar flares are sudden bursts of photons that travel out from the surface of the Sun. These are also the sites where particles such as protons and electrons are accelerated. Like CMEs, unless they are facing the Earth, solar flares won’t have an impact on our atmosphere.
Solar Storms and Earth
What is a solar storm’s effect on Earth? When a strong solar event occurs in the direction of Earth, such as a coronal mass ejection, it sends highly charged particles towards our planet. Usually, the Earth’s magnetosphere acts like a forcefield from these particles. However, a particularly strong emission arriving at a southward angle can clash with our magnetosphere. Because the magnetically charged emission is oppositely charged than that of our magnetosphere, this causes a sort of magnetic ‘explosion’.
The ‘explosion’ creates a hole in the Earth’s magnetosphere which enables solar winds to penetrate our atmosphere, effectively attacking the Earth’s own magnetic field. In these circumstances, power grids, communications systems, and navigational equipment can all be impacted or knocked out for between six and twelve hours –– or more depending on the magnitude of the solar storm.
The Carrington Event
Back in 1859, a massive solar storm struck the magnetosphere of the Earth, known as the Carrington Event. This coronal mass ejection, which was the largest such event in recorded history at the time, knocked out telegraph systems around the world. It’s an example of the power of these solar events; luckily for the citizens of Earth in 1859, their entire civilization wasn’t dependent on international communications!
The charged particles given off by these solar storms interact with the Earth’s magnetosphere, potentially triggering a geomagnetic storm and atmospheric disturbances.That’s why some scientists are trying to understand exactly what a solar storm is and just how often the Sun actually produces them.
If a solar storm event the size of The Carrington Event were to occur today, it could cause serious problems. A solar storm of that magnitude could knock out communication systems, power grids, navigation systems, and more. That could impact everything from television signals and internet connections to air travel and municipal electricity networks.
Researchers believe that The Carrington Event was not one sudden burst of solar energy, but rather several rapid explosions of solar energy that occurred between August and October of 1859. While The Carrington Event is still considered to be an outlier of an event –– a solar storm of its size has not occurred since –– governments, corporations, and private citizens should be aware of the risk and be prepared to respond accordingly to repair any damage that power grids and communications systems sustain.
Learn More About The Sun
The Sun serves as an endless source of solar energy –– and an endless source of fascination! At Rainbow Symphony, we want to encourage every curious star-gazer by offering more educational materials and better solar viewing products. We offer a wide selection of eclipse gear, including plastic eclipse glasses and paper eclipse glasses, solar filters to photograph the Sun, and other solar astronomy products to help you answer the question ‘what is a solar storm’ and more!
Explore our blog for more interesting insights into the stars above, or browse our store to find the tools you need to investigate the stars for yourself!