The Northern Lights may be staggeringly beautiful, and sometimes incredibly dramatic, but these natural works of art come with a terrible price tag.
The most ferocious magnetic storm on the surface of the sun in over six years is causing an epic magnetic battle to rage above over our heads in the atmosphere of the earth. Astronomers maintain that further massive solar eruptions, like that which flared toward the Earth on Tuesday last, are inevitable, potentially wreaking more havoc than ever seen before.
Friday last saw a coronal mass ejection – CME- speeding toward earth and prompting very strong geomagnetic storm reactions, giving rise to those gloriously beautiful aurorae seen on Sunday night at high latitudes.
As these were being enjoyed by onlookers on Sunday, CME sunspot 1402 burst from the sun, headed our way, the M-class flare just short of being one of the strongest kind the sun produces, meaning that even more spectacular northern lights will be on view.
This is the largest solar radiation storm to affect the earth since 2005, and with our sun approaching the maximum magnetic activity of the normal 11-year cycle, predicted in 2013, more solar excitement is guaranteed over the next 12 months.
Thankfully, the earth is more than capable of protecting us from solar radiation, our dense atmosphere absorbing those ionizing X-rays, the natural magnetosphere deflecting solar particles and funnelling them toward Polar Regions and thus, generating the stunning northern lights.
Solar radiation does not directly threaten life on Earth, but is known to adversely affect communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit, meaning that nervous satellite operators will be very wary of CME activity, modern society increasingly dependent on satellite systems.
It is undoubtedly only going to become more of an issue in future, as satellites become ever more prevalent in the communications industry, as an X-class solar flare – the most destructive kind – could have devastatingly destructive consequences for the hundreds of sensitive satellites in orbit. We can do nothing to prevent these natural events, but should be aware that the beauty we so wonder at could carry – if dramatic enough – a terrible price.