An impending doom is looming right over our head. It is none other than our very own Sun that gives us life. It is well known fact that stars of the size of Sun end up as red giants and when our Sun becomes one, it will swell to such an extent that it will swallow the whole Earth! That’s when the existence of Earth will be wiped out from the entire universe. Luckily, that’s too distant a future to worry about right now. It is not happening anytime sooner than 5 billion years from now.
However, scientists are worried about something else – a devastation on a significantly lesser scale but catastrophic enough to send humanity back to the dark Stone Age for at least a few days. This threat will come in form of a Superflare and the expected date of its arrival is 194 years from now. But, it can happen sooner than what is being anticipated.
So, what is Superflare?
For the time being let us consider it as a solar flare with the only difference being that, a Superflare is way too massive and devastating than the frequent solar fares that hit Earth. The last time a Superflare to have hit our planet was in 1859. It was so strong that the Northern Lights were visible from as far out as Cuba. Not just that, many telegraph lines were set ablaze by it.
Astronomers working at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts managed to study 84 stars that are similar to our Sun. During the study they observed 29 Superflare over a 4-study period that were similar to the one that had hit Earth in 1859 and had about 150 times more power than solar flare of 1989 that managed to disrupt the power supply of Quebec, Canada. After carefully studying the data, they came to a conclusion that Superflares from Sun-like stars follow a natural cycle of 250 years to 480 years with 350 years of gap being far more common. This however doesn’t rule out the fact that a Superflare can repeat itself a 100 years prior to that. The findings of the team were presented on a poster at Honolulu’s International Astronomical Union General Assembly.
Since the last Superflare invasion of our home orb was in 1859, the next one is not happening until 194 years from now. This however is based on the assumption that the Superflare doesn’t suddenly changes its mind and starts following 250-year cycle. If 250 years cycle is followed then, the next one hit us in 2109 CE. Otherwise, the unfortunate year will be 2209 CE.
What consequences are to be expected when the next Superflare hits us?
Forget about 2109 or 2209 CE. What if the Superflare hits us tomorrow? We will be doomed! Back in 1859, the telegraph lines were torched. But today, we have satellites and our entire communication system and even most of our daily activities are all hinged on them. A Superflare of the magnitude of the one that had hit us in 1859 will instantly fry all our satellite. That’s the first thing that will happen. This will lead to catastrophic communication failure. All our electronic equipment will become useless. Weather forecast systems will fail, defense systems of countries will collapse and there will be chaos all around.
Also Read: 20 Facts About Sun
Well, that’s just one side of the story. We aren’t done yet! A Superflare will have enough energy in form of energetic particles and electromagnetic radiations that can hit the surface of Earth and take out power grids and transformers. We will leave this task to you. Can you prepare a list of things that can happen when there’s no electricity?
And what about humans?
Hmm… glad you asked! This is where a bit of clarification is required about solar flares and CMEs. Solar flares in general are very intense energies released from twisted magnetic fields of Sun. These energy radiations (usually in form of X-Rays and Gamma Rays) travel very fast and take about 8 minutes to reach Earth. They are usually associated with bright lights. Typically 1 to 3 solar flares a day are normal and most high energy particles produced by a flare are usually close to the Sun. Some of these particles escape out it space in different directions and some reach Earth but they are not very harmful.
A CME on the other hand is known as Coronal Mass Ejection. Simply put, some mass is ejected from the Sun and hurdled into space. A CME typically ejects about 22 billion pounds or 10 billion kilograms of solar plasma. Basically, a CME is a gargantuan cloud filled with high energy particles and electromagnetic radiations. These clouds travel at slower speed than solar flares and usually take about 1 to 3 days to reach Earth.
Also read: 50 Interesting Earth Facts
As a CME propagates through space, it sends out shockwaves, which along with the dense particle cloud can have profound impact on human health and psyche. CMEs follow an 11-year cycle and during those cyclical periods, solar storms (the other name for these CME) are pretty strong and literally put our biological clock, known as circadian rhythm, out of sync. This affects the pineal gland – something that calls our brain as home.
In response to desynchronized circadian rhythm, the pineal gland produces more melatonin, which is known for aiding us with sleep. Effects? Um… you decide they are serious or not – bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety – all of which eventually increases the rates of suicide in the worst-hit area! Palpitations, headaches, confused thoughts, mood swings and erratic behaviors are also common.
CMEs and solar flares are both explosions that take place on Sun but they are absolutely different things. They can happen together. Superflares are events when both CMEs and flares take place together but on a very higher magnitude than usual flares and CMEs.
So, if a normal CME can have such physical and psychological impacts on us, imagine what can happen in case of Superflares. Just to clarify, CMEs are the ones who can take out the communication satellites, power grids etc. and the 1989 flare that had hit Quebec was actually a CME.
Now that we know…
…what Superflares are capable of, let us think for a moment that we are standing in the 22nd or the 23rd century. Definitely the technology is far more improved and 100% of our lives are dependent on them. A Superflare will bring our lives to a complete halt for who knows how many days. May be this generation will not be there to witness the dreadful event but standing today, we can only image the magnitude of infrastructural loss our future generations will experience 194 years from now or may be earlier.