In this classic episode of Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know, Ben Bowlin and Matt Frederick talk about the terrifying potential of the earth being destroyed by a solar flare. What is a solar flare? Why does it pose a threat? How likely is this scenario, and when would it happen? And most importantly, how would it affect human civilization? First, it’s important to have some basic facts about the sun. This giant burning ball of gases is the only reason Earth is able to support life – we’re close enough to the massive star to benefit from its warmth, but not too close for everything on our planet’s surface to be burned into ash. It’s a pretty good deal, as far as galactic real estate goes. But like any neighbor you’re on casual, hand-waving terms with, there’s no telling if they may snap and destroy the entire neighborhood.
The sun is composed of mostly hydrogen and helium, as well as some incredibly strong magnetic fields, which is what keeps the whole system together. Every now and then, the magnetic fields get disturbed, creating observable spots on the sun – appropriately called sunspots. We’ve known about these phenomena for centuries – Chinese astronomers recorded dark spots on the sun as far back as the 12th century, and the Aztecs observed them as well. We’ve learned they’re on something of a predictable cycle; every 11 years or so, the sun hits a “solar maximum” when these spots occur in clusters. Basically these spots are concentrations of magnetic energy, coiling up tightly – and if the coils reach a breaking point, they release an incredible amount of energy, causing a sudden, observable brightening on the surface of the sun. This is called a solar flare.
Like the sun, the earth has its own magnetosphere, and if the coronal mass ejection, or CME, of energy from the solar flare is big enough, it can seriously disturb our magnetosphere. It’s actually happened before: In 1859, a CME caused a massive fluctuation to the magnetosphere, disrupting radio waves; compasses and the telegraph system wouldn’t work for some time. But what if it happened today? Given how much of our modern civilization relies on communications, we could find ourselves in serious danger if the world’s satellites were suddenly not working, rendering ships and planes virtually blind, cell phones useless, and the Internet nonexistent. It’s a truly apocalyptic scenario – but how worried do we need to be about this? Find out all about this space danger and more on this classic episode of Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know.
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