When you hear the term “natural disaster,” phenomenon such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes may be the first things to come to mind.
However, natural disasters originating beyond our Earth’s atmosphere also have the potential to disrupt life as we know it.
For example, a handful of solar flares over the last century have resulted in well-documented disruptions to Earth’s electromagnetic field.
Each time one of these events has taken place, we’ve learned something valuable about how we can prepare ourselves in the event that a solar flare takes out our power grids or cuts off our cellular communication.
While we don’t see evidence of a major solar flare event happening anytime in the immediate future, it’s important to remain educated and aware in order to be prepared for the possibilities.
Today, I’m going to explain the science and history behind solar flares, the effects they can have on our lives, and how to prepare for them.
What Are Solar Flares?
A solar flare is a large explosion of magnetic energy within the sun’s atmosphere.
They occur when a release of energy twists in the magnetic field above sunspots, resulting in a sudden burst of increased radiation and brightness.
This radiation is emitted across the entire electromagnetic spectrum--from gamma rays to UV rays--and can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours.
Their frequency varies--when the sun is more active, there may be several flares within a day. During quieter periods, there might be one a week.
That said, large flares are less frequent than smaller ones, and solar activity varies within an 11-year cycle. At the peak of a cycle, there are typically more sunspots, resulting in more solar flares.
Don’t expect to be able to see solar flares by looking at the sun (and generally speaking, you should never look directly at the sun if you want to protect your vision).
Though they can’t be seen by the naked eye, solar flares can be viewed using telescopes, space x-rays, and thermal imaging equipment.
Not to be taken lightly, these flares, according to NASA, are our solar system’s largest explosive events.
In fact, the amount of energy released is the equivalent of millions of 100-megaton hydrogen bombs exploding at the same time!
The Danger of Solar Flares
First things first--the heat and radiation from a solar flare don’t have the potential to hit Earth and cause physical damage to humans on the Earth’s surface.
However, solar storms caused by flares DO have the potential to shut down our Earth’s power grid and communications technology.
If a solar flare is powerful enough, it can send coronal mass ejections, otherwise known as CMEs, out into space at millions of miles per hour.
These ejections contain charged particles, and if the ejections strike our atmosphere, they will cause geomagnetic storms.
These storms can bring many of the systems that rely on Earth’s magnetic field to a standstill.
In fact, scientists have warned that if a very large solar eruption were to occur, it has the potential to destroy satellites and wreck power and communications grids around the globe.
If the network of transformers within our power grid becomes overloaded with an electromagnetic current, the result might be widespread blackouts.
Everything from clean water to gas stations and cell phone service to transportation would be impacted in areas with these blackouts.
As you can see, in an era where so much of our societal infrastructure and systems rely on technology and electricity, solar storms are a serious threat to our everyday life.
Learning from History
To give you a sense of how solar storms have affected the Earth in the past, here are three cases to consider…
New York Railroad Storm: On May 13, 1921, astronomers noticed a large 94,000-mile-wide sunspot--an ominous signal of the solar flare to come.
Two days later on the morning of May 15, many parts of the New York Central Railroad were disrupted due to the current created by a solar storm, and a few of the control offices caught on fire due to a ground current overload.
Ultimately, the storm--considered to be one of the largest in the 20th century--caused a communications blackout in a majority of the Eastern seaboard.
Quebec Blackout of 1989: Millions across Montreal and neighboring areas of Quebec experienced a blackout after a giant flare hit Earth’s magnetic fields straight on in 1989.
Electrical grids in the Northeastern U.S. also barely survived blackout conditions, but minor power grid problems were also noted across the U.S.
Bastille Day Solar Flare: On July 14, 2000, solar observation satellites recorded a powerful flare that registered as an X-class flare--the highest designation possible.
Not only did the flare incite widespread radio blackouts--it was so powerful that it caused air passengers on polar routes to receive “the equivalent of several chest X-rays worth of radiation exposure.”
These are just a few historical cases of solar flares.
What the Past Has Taught Us About Preparing for Solar Flares
In a best-case scenario, solar flares will lead to interference with GPS and cell phone service.
However, if the storm is large enough, there can be more serious repercussions--and you won’t want to be caught unprepared.
Scientists and the military are constantly monitoring the solar forecast and watching for potential flare activity.
“We’re much more reliant on technology these days that is vulnerable to space weather than we were in the past,” shares Thomas Berger, director of the Space Weather Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“If we were hit by an extreme event today, it’d be very difficult to respond.”
Therefore, it’s up to individuals to prepare for self-reliance in the case that food systems, electricity, and more are out of commission for an extended period of time.
The methods currently used to predict flares aren’t all that sophisticated. With current technology, predictions are usually stated in terms of the probability of a flare within 24 or 48 or 72 hours.
In order to stay up-to-date with such predictions, you’ll need to pay attention to forecasts issued by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
And as with any blackout-causing disaster, you can prepare by…
- Stocking up on flashlights, battery-operated lights, candles, and matches in the event of a power outage.
- Purchasing a backup generator or solar charger in the event the electricity grid is impacted. There’s even a salt and biofuel activated device out that can generate a backup power supply.
- Stocking up on non-perishable food items in case grocery stores become inaccessible or shut down due to lack of electricity.
- Purchasing a battery-operated radio or hand crank radio so you can keep up to speed on what’s happening around the country if such an event were to occur.
Be sure to store all of your supplies in an easily accessible place.
Only by remaining educated, vigilant, and prepared will you ensure that you and your family are adequately prepared for the worst-case scenario if there should be weeks without power.
Have a safe weekend as you stay alert!
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply