While we all owe our lives to the heat radiating from the sun, our planet's placement and rotation are in a very delicate balance that we rely on to survive. Sometimes the sun releases an immense amount of energy and an unimaginable amount of radiation is hurled at the planet with a speed of thousands of miles a second. These are known as solar flares. Could such powerful bursts of solar energy ever be strong enough to end life on Earth?
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The atmosphere is a protective layer
Earth’s ingenious design carries multiple layers of protection from whatever dwells in space. Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere are the most relevant ones. Most of the radiation is absorbed by this layer of gas surrounding the planet before it can touch human skin; according to Alex Young Associate Director for Science at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in a 2011 video:
Even in the largest events that we've seen in the past 10,000 years, we see that the effect is not enough to damage the atmosphere such that we are no longer protected.
However, this radiation could still hamper human life in indirect ways that could cause deaths should we ever be caught by surprise. The electromagnetic field generated by solar flares is powerful enough to take down critical technology on which we rely for essential functioning. Through disturbing GPS, internet communications and even power grids, a high enough level of disturbance can be reached to cause a loss of life.
The most extreme possibility would be a solar flare powerful enough to cause a surge in an entire hemisphere’s technological devices and infrastructure, rendering them obsolete. But even then things can be brought back to normal with some time. Modern electrical grids have designs that take into account the possibility of such events. While critical infrastructure is not yet completely immune, it will essentially not fall apart as quickly as one might expect especially with the existence of contingency plans. People might be forced to live more communally, relying on each other for resources similar to one of overdramatized apocalyptic shows with the biggest critical risk being hospitals for their reliance on consistent power. But that’s the extent of the damage solar flares can cause at this point of the sun’s evolution. Maybe things will escalate in the future but that should be beyond our lifetime.
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