How to stay safe in an extreme solar flare, where the sun bombards the Earth with radiation and magnetic devastation

The sun emits a coronal mass ejection.NASA/GSFC

  • Solar flares and plasma eruptions are common and sometimes large enough to wreak havoc on Earth.

  • Sun flares can cause power outages, radio blackouts, and GPS confusion.

  • Stay safe during a solar storm by preparing to lose power, printing maps, and staying away from planes.

The sun constantly writhes with activity, with plasma bubbling on its surface and giant sunspots opening and closing. Sometimes, the solar surface erupts and sends a blast of plasma and electrically charged particles towards the Earth.

As solar particles pour into Earth, our planet’s magnetic field lines send them toward the north and south poles, where they penetrate the upper atmosphere and interact with gas molecules to create the dancing lights of the aurora.

northern Lights

The Northern Lights in the sky near Rovaniemi in Lapland, Finland.Alexander Kuznetsov/Reuters

Larger solar flares can produce beautiful auroras as far south as Pennsylvania, Iowa and Oregon.

But really, really big it can disrupt power lines, confuse GPS, and disable radio communications.

Earth’s atmosphere blocks the radiation from these solar flares, protecting people on the ground, but it can’t stop magnetic and electrical activity from interfering with our technology.

coronal mass ejection cme solar flare gif

A coronal mass ejection, as seen from NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory-A spacecraft.NASA/STEREO/COR2

“The risk of severe space weather is that it disrupts technologies now vital to human life,” Mike Hapgood, a space weather consultant at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK, told Insider by email. “This has only become a major problem in the last sixty years, say since 1960, when electricity replaced coal as the key energy source for homes and offices.”

We are in a new solar cycle, with the sun reaching maximum activity in July 2025. Solar flares and space storms are likely to be common over the next three years.

This is prime time for the possibility of a giant solar event causing blackouts.

What is a solar flare and how does it affect the Earth?

coronal mass ejection sun soho nasa

A coronal mass ejection.NASA

A solar flare, which is a burst of radiation that accelerates charged particles away from the sun, travels at the speed of light, so by the time meteorologists see it, it’s already affecting Earth’s ionosphere, according to NASA. This can cause radio blackouts.

Coronal mass ejections are a more violent and focused eruption when a cloud of plasma and magnetic fields hurtles into space.

CMEs primarily affect the magnetosphere, pushing Earth’s magnetic field lines in an event called a geomagnetic storm, also known as a solar storm. This is what can cause power outages.

Meteorologists can issue warnings before CMEs. Some CMEs reach Earth as early as 15 hours after they are first spotted, while others can take days, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

As with any disaster, however, it’s wise to plan ahead so you don’t rush to stock up on supplies at the last minute.

Start now: stock up on supplies to live without electricity

person in yellow hoodie writes on paper in the dark in the light of the lantern

Ismail Sha studies with a rechargeable lantern for his final exam during a power outage in Cape Town, South Africa.Esa Alexander/Reuters

Geomagnetic storms can produce extra currents in the electrical grid, which interfere with transformers and can cause outages.

“I expect the interference would cause parts of the power grid to shut down to avoid wider damage, and operators would need some time to get back to normal, maybe hours, maybe a day or two,” he said. said Hapgood.

That’s what happened in Quebec in 1989. A flood of particles from the sun knocked out the region’s electricity for about nine hours.

“I would classify this as an event that happens once a century in a particular place,” Hapgood said, adding that any power outage from a solar storm would likely occur in a region of about 1,000 miles.

“It’s important for people to have some personal resilience to the loss of electricity,” he added.

This means stocking up on non-perishable food, clean water, cash, battery-operated or hand-cranked flashlights, blankets and warm clothes for the winter, and some means of cooking safely without electricity.

It’s also a good idea to have a battery-powered or self-winding radio to get news and weather updates. But there’s also the possibility that it won’t work during a solar storm.

Don’t plan to rely on radios or GPS

the man looks at the radio receiver

Radio enthusiast Robin Hsu looks at a radio receiver while monitoring air traffic at a coffee shop in Pingtung, Taiwan.Fabian Hamacher/Reuters

Remember that solar flares, as well as CMEs, can degrade radio signals and even cause radio blackouts. Two solar storms disrupted emergency radio communications for a total of 11 hours shortly after Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Geomagnetic storms also interfere with satellites and can even push them out of orbit, disrupting GPS on Earth. So it might be smart to print out directions to key points or emergency evacuation locations in advance.

You may want to avoid flying during a solar storm

Interjet Airlines plane after landing at San Antonio International Airport in Texas

An Interjet Airlines plane taxis at San Antonio International.Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Earth’s atmosphere protects people on the ground by blocking the powerful radiation that comes from solar flares and CMEs. But being on an airplane during a solar flare or storm can expose you to high doses of radiation, research has shown.

In some cases, you may still not be able to get on a plane. If your flight is over the Arctic during a geomagnetic storm, it may be canceled or diverted due to the risk of communications disruption and navigational issues.

Never run a generator indoors

This error is a common killer in the aftermath of disasters and power outages. Generators produce carbon monoxide, so experts recommend never running them indoors or in an enclosed space like a garage, shed, or basement. These machines can fill the area with poisonous gas and kill people in minutes.

The same goes for charcoal grills — never use them indoors, even if the area is well-ventilated. Coal also produces carbon monoxide.

Being prepared for disaster in general can prepare you for solar flares

swirling hurricane on the planet

Hurricane Ian, just south of Cuba, as seen from the International Space Station.NASA

Preparing for the possibility of a major solar flare is not much different than preparing for any other disaster. For hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards, pandemics, or zombie apocalypses, it’s also crucial to be prepared to lose power.

If you follow the basics of disaster preparedness, you’ll probably be ready for a solar flare.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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