What are Solar Flares

In the past two weeks there have been reports of yet another large solar flare having been captured in wonderful detail on camera by NASA. Indeed, over the course of the past couple of years, anyone with their ear to the ground of the scientific world will have heard tell of the potentially destructive nature of the myriad imminent solar flares and the terrible doom by which they will apparently be accompanied . From Northern Ireland being plunged into an apocalyptic darkness within the next two years to the complete destruction of the world’s electrical infrastructure, the stories can be incredibly worrying – especially to the scientifically uninitiated. So what is this extraterrestrial phenomenon about which there has been so much recent conjecture?

Solar flares, when viewing one of the fantastic pictures captured of them, seem to be very aptly named, looking as they do like a flare emanating from the surface of the sun. Think of the gushing geysers of Iceland or North America and you won’t be too far off an appropriate image. The word ‘flare’, however, seems decidedly meek when one considers the sheer volume of energy that is released in your average expulsion. 6 x (10 to the power of 25) is how the number of Joules released is expressed mathematically, but for these purposes it is enough to say that the energy released is vast indeed. 60,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Joules. Expressed more tangibly, if you try to imagine the amount of energy released when the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet hit Jupiter in 1994, and multiply it by a mere 25,000, you are getting close. Essentially, it is impossible to conceive, but suffice to say, the word ‘flare’ most definitely doesn’t cut it.

The cause of solar flares is complicated in the extreme to the layman, and are still not well know to the very scientists researching them. It is still completely impossible, for example, for mankind to predict the occurrence of them even to this day. In essence, flares occur when accelerated charged particles, mainly electrons, interact with what is known as the plasma medium. The cause of the acceleration of the charged particles is to do with complicated magnetic fields upon the surface of the sun, which under certain conditions become disconnected from each other leaving a helical magnetic void, out of which the material contained can violently expand, or, indeed, flare.

More important to the inhabitants of earth are the side effects of a solar flare. On a superficial level, their effects can be beautiful. The radiation released by a solar flare, known as a solar wind, upon contact with the earth’s magnetic field, causes what is known on as Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis, or the magical Northern and Southern lights. One of the reasons that solar flares have been in the news so much recently is due to the fact that the Northern lights, normally contained within the relative remoteness of the Arctic Circle, have been witnessed as far south as Scotland, and even Japan, suggesting winds of a very large magnitude indeed. While these solar winds present a potential hazard to astronauts, they serve to do nothing but beautify the nights’ skies on ground level.

The more pertinent effects of solar flares involve the effect that the geomagnetic storms caused by them have on the electromagnetic field on earth. Power grids have been known to be knocked out for hours at a time, with more long-term crises predicted in the relatively near future. Short-wave radio communications can also be interfered with, and low-orbiting satellites can be made to drag, also affecting communications.

It is important to note that, while the effects of solar flares have the potential to be incredibly destructive to life on earth, the reality is that the chances are tremendously unlikely. The worst that is likely to be seen will be brief power shortages or a fleeting lack of signal to your mobile telephone. Solar flares really are nothing to worry about, but do constitute a very interesting scientific subject if you are so inclined.