With the coming of December 21, 2012 and the Mayan calendar stories that fill people’s heads with wonder and even fear, there is a lot of discussion about “sun storms,” “solar flares,” and Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) as the coming of the end of the world. What is all this about and should we fear our friend, the Sun? As the popular National Geographic Television show, “Doomsday Preppers,” demonstrates, many people are devoting big parts of their lives to try to survive huge catastrophes.(1) A big one featured in many of the episodes displays fear of a Sun explosion. Should we all be equally worried?
First, calm down. Ole Sol, our own private star, the Sun, is our buddy. For absolutely no charge, our Sun dispenses warmth and light, and we use its generosity in many ways. In fact, without the Sun, there would be no human life on Earth. However, it is also true that our friend the Sun has the potential of calling in the debt and killing most human life on Earth, too. How can it do that without just turning itself off or totally exploding in one really giant fireworks show?
To get a handle on all this, we need to know that the Sun is a professional emitter, it sends out all kinds of rays, particles, semi-particles, and stuff not measured yet. Most all of this normal, regular, day-to-day radiation emits right down the throat of the Earth. While we are catching some rays and tanning up to a golden color via light photons and some infrared waves, we are also being hit with x-rays, particles, particles that become energy sometimes, and a whole array of wave/matter with Greek letters for names, like Gamma rays. According to ScienceDaily (2), that is the regular stuff, and as long as we do not tan to a crisp, the healthy existence of humankind out in the sun for eons shows that the bits and pieces of Sun stuff coming in probably hurts us little, if at all. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency specifies the kinds and amounts of sun radiation a person can stand before genuine damage occurs, but a real sunburn is nothing to sneeze at, as its Web site, “RadTown USA” notes, “One in five Americans develops skin cancer, and one person dies from this disease every hour.” (3) This is serious stuff but is not Doomsday.
The very real Doomsday fears come from much more massive radiation of several kinds, lots more than cause bright red, pealing skin. Our Sun can be our dangerous villain on a nation-wide or even world-wide scale. The normal-but-low-level rays and particles that do come in can be concentrated in one highly unusual but massive blast that sometimes, and with little to no warning, the Sun can send to earth enough extra energy to do us Doomsday-type damage. Regardless of the labels, noted above like CMEs, it all boils down to way too much energy for us to handle in a big glob. If we are outside when the mess hits, we will not be hurt much, if at all, but our vital services will be zapped very badly. The most vulnerable human invention in danger is the distribution of electricity, called the power grid. This grid is most visible as wires and very tall poles that carry electricity from the “making place,” the electrical generators, to the “using place,” our homes and businesses. These wires are miles long and, while carrying electricity to run your toaster, they are also a kind of antenna that can pick up Sun energy. As described in Discover Magazine (4), when the grid wires receive a big excess of Sun energy, the system will burn out, shut down, and not make your toast. At your home, you are having “a power outage,” but with enough Sun energy coming all at once, millions of other homes are “doing without,” too.
That is just the beginning of what could be a year-long electricity disruption. Yes, a year without electricity, imagine that! In the parlance of doomsday preppers, that would be “the end of life as we know it.” Everything in the grid could be fried, but the big important items are in the huge dull green painted boxes behind chain link fences where all the wires go-the transformers that make the power travel the way we need. Transformers like these are large, very expensive, and can not be repaired or replaced fast. They are so numerous and so expensive that, at least today, no one wants to stock pile a big supply of them on the off chance the Sun will get very angry some day. Another allied issue is that in America, there are many power grids, not well tied together (for a good reason), that keep one grid that covers say, three states, from easily borrowing from their neighbor. The good part of this idea is that if one big grid fails, by not being connected to neighbors, that failure will not knock out others automatically. That issue is beside the point anyway because a really big Sun storm will fry all the power grids at the same time.
As noted by the Web site, How Stuff Works (5), even more headaches are in store for all but the most determined doomsday prepper. A big ejection of rays and particles from the Sun as being discussed herein will also permanently demolish the guts of all of your electronic devices. Poof go the TV, the computer chips and the chips in the little box under the hood of your car that make it go, cell telephones, and everything else that has delicate electronic parts. If we think of just one day without all these gadgets and stretch that problem over months if not years, we get the magnitude of the disruption of “life as we know it.”
This danger is absolutely real and, over a long time period, actually inevitable. The Sun has zapped Earth like this before. In recent times, the medium-sized zapping was contained to regions, not whole continents, but “the big one” will be catastrophic indeed. When the blast comes is really anyone’s guess, but its effects on us now are obviously very bad as detailed by About Dot Com (6). Too, today, there is no overall plan to fix a really huge breakdown. There are some localized examples of failures which did kill power to all of the Northeast, for example, but those are small potatoes compared to a total, all-grid failure. People need drinking water on the third day and food soon after, not counting shelter and the luxuries of gasoline, cel phone communication, and tax collections. Other parts of the globe can also be affected, so do not count on Bangladesh sending aid, for example. And, just an American solar flare failure would throw the rest of the world into chaos.
So, now that you understand a little more, should you be worried? Well, yes and no. Probably, unless you are a subsistence rice farmer in Burma, you can not adequately prepare to survive such a mess in anything like comfort. In fact, deaths will be more common than life. When will our Sun really act up? No one knows and best guesses cause arguments. Some, like scientists at Montana State University (7), even suggest that the Sun is actually becoming more mild and big ejections are not in our future. However, if the past can predict the future, our good Earth is due for a massive blast that will affect every person on the globe in very bad ways. Perhaps we should enjoy our toast now while we can.