What impact do solar flares have on human activities?
Solar flares produce high energy particles and radiation that are dangerous to living organisms. However, at the surface of the Earth we are well protected from the effects of solar flares and other solar activity by the Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere. The most dangerous emissions from flares are energetic charged particles (primarily high-energy protons) and electromagnetic raditation (primarily x-rays).
The x-rays from flares are stopped by our atmosphere well above the Earth's surface. They do disturb the Earth's ionosphere, however, which in turn disturbs some radio communications. Along with energetic ultraviolet radiation, they heat the Earth’s outer atmosphere, causing it to expand. This increases the drag on Earth-orbiting satellites, reducing their lifetime in orbit. Also, both intense radio emission from flares and these changes in the atmosphere can degrade the precision of Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements.
The energetic particles produced at the Sun in flares seldom reach the Earth. When they do, the Earth's magnetic field prevents almost all of them from reaching the Earth's surface. The small number of very high energy particles that does reach the surface does not significantly increase the level of radiation that we experience every day.
The most serious effects on human activity occur during major geomagnetic storms. It is now understood that the major geomagnetic storms are induced by coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Coronal mass ejections are usually associated with flares, but sometimes no flare is observed when they occur. Like flares, CMEs are more frequent during the active phase of the Sun's approximately 11 year cycle. The last maximum in solar activity was in the year 2000. The next maximum is expected to occur in 2013.
Coronal mass ejections are more likely to have a significant effect on our activities than flares because they carry more material into a larger volume of interplanetary space, increasing the likelihood that they will interact with the Earth. While a flare alone produces high-energy particles near the Sun, some of which escape into interplanetary space, a CME drives a shock wave which can continuously produce energetic particles as it propagates through interplanetary space. When a CME reaches the Earth, its impact disturbs the Earth's magnetosphere, setting off a geomagnetic storm. A CME typically takes 3 to 5 days to reach the Earth after it leaves the Sun. Observing the ejection of CMEs from the Sun provides an early warning of geomagnetic storms. Only recently, with SOHO, has it been possible to continuously observe the emission of CMEs from the Sun and determine if they are aimed at the Earth.
One serious problem that can occur during a geomagnetic storm is damage to Earth-orbiting satellites, especially those in high, geosynchronous orbits. Communications satellites are generally in these high orbits. Either the satellite becomes highly charged during the storm and a component is damaged by the high current that discharges into the satellite, or a component is damaged by high-energy particles that penetrate the satellite. We are not able to predict when and where a satellite in a high orbit may be damaged during a geomagnetic storm.
Astronauts on the Space Station are not in immediate danger because of the relatively low orbit of this manned mission. They do have to be concerned about cumulative exposure during space walks. The energetic particles from a flare or CME would be dangerous to an astronaut on a mission to the Moon or Mars, however.
Another major problem that has occurred during geomagnetic storms has been the temporary loss of electrical power over a large region. The best known case of this occurred in 1989 in Quebec. High currents in the magnetosphere induce high currents in power lines, blowing out electric transformers and power stations. This is most likely to happen at high latitudes, where the induced currents are greatest, and in regions having long power lines and where the ground is poorly conducting.
These are the most serious problems that have occurred as a result of short-term solar activity and the resulting geomagnetic storms. A positive aspect of geomagnetic storms, from an aesthetic point of view, is that the Earth's auroras are enhanced.
The damage to satellites and power grids can be very expensive and disruptive. Fortunately, this kind of damage is not frequent. Geomagnetic storms are more disruptive now than in the past because of our greater dependence on technical systems that can be affected by electric currents and energetic particles high in the Earth's magnetosphere.
Could a solar flare or CME be large enough to cause a nation-wide or planet-wide cataclysm? It is, of course, impossible to give a definitive answer to this question, but no such event is known to have occurred in the past and there is no evidence that the Sun could initiate such an event.
You can find more information about these topics at the following locations on the Web:
The Human Impacts of Solar Storms and Space Weather
Information on Geomagnetic Storms & Impacts on Power Systems
Solar Flare Effect on Weather
Primer on Space Weather
Mission to Geospace: Probing the Sun-Earth Connection
You can obtain current information about solar activity, geomagnetic storms, and space weather from NOAA's Today's Space Weather Web page
Here are a couple of books on this topic:
"The 23rd Cycle: Learning to Live with a Stormy Star" by
Sten Odenwald, Columbia University Press, 2001.
"Storms in Space" by John W. Freeman, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Next: What are Hard X-rays?
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Web Author: Gordon Holman
Responsible NASA Official: Gordon D. Holman
Heliophysics Science Division
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Solar Physics Laboratory / Code 671
Greenbelt, MD 20771, USA