Solar Flare Effects On Humans – Is it Dangerous? Find Out Now

John Henrique Nov 30, 2022

Some see solar flares as a promise of Earth’s annihilation. However, this is a common phenomenon: it occurs daily when the Sun is most active. But can a high-intensity solar flare affect humans?

Introduction

What is a solar flare?

A solar flare is a sudden release of energy that happens in sunspots, which researchers call magnetically active regions.

Solar flare effects on humans
Note the tiny jet that possibly triggers the flare on the left, which in turn drives the wave. (Credit: Patrick McCauley/From Quarks to Quasars/SDO).

To understand better, imagine a rubber band when it is twisted and held so that it does not unwind. There is a lot of accumulated energy, which when it is released (in this case, when we release one end of the rubber band), it releases all its trapped energy at once, and unfolds quickly.

The Sun’s magnetic fields are often twisted, and when explosions occur, they suddenly, explosively realign, releasing immense amounts of energy all at once.

This image was captured by NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) Ahead spacecraft on February 12, 2010. Two active regions glow brightly in this ultraviolet image of the Sun. A small flare rises from the active area on the left. (Credit: NASA).

In sunspots, there is a concentration of energy stored in plasma – composed of particles, mainly electrons, confined in a magnetic structure.

When there is some instability in this region, an explosion occurs, which ejects enormous amounts of energy into the interplanetary medium, including high-energy particles (protons, electrons and atomic nuclei) and electromagnetic radiation, ranging from gamma rays and X-rays to radio waves.

Solar flare effects on humans
Using a Skybender, equipped with the narrowest calcium solar filter in the world – Apollo Lasky was able to record a powerful C5 solar flare at the limb. The impressive eruption produced a coronal mass ejection. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Radiation released by a solar flare travels at the speed of light, 300,000 m/s (or about 670,616,629 mph). X-rays, gamma rays, and radio waves are the first evidence we receive that a solar flare has occurred, and this “warning” reaches us in about 8 minutes.

Particles travel more slowly, taking anywhere from 30 minutes (for higher energy particles) to several days to reach Earth. When these emissions reach Earth, they can change space weather, causing effects such as disrupting our communications networks.

Solar flares release energies of up to 1025 joules, which is equivalent to ten million volcanic eruptions on Earth.

Solar flare effects on humans
A pleasant Suprise was recorded in this candle flame like solar flare. A calcium filter was used. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Coronal mass ejection vs solar flare

There are several types of solar events. Solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) are usually associated, but they don’t always happen together (a solar flare may not generate a CME, and vice versa). Both are caused by magnetic contortions and cause a great release of energy.

Despite the mentioned similarities, the two phenomena emit different things, look different, travel at different speeds, and cause different impacts on Earth.

Solar flare effects on humans
On August 31, 2012 a long filament of solar material that had been hovering in the sun’s atmosphere, the corona, erupted out into space at 4:36 p.m. EDT. The coronal mass ejection, or CME, traveled at over 900 miles per second. The CME did not travel directly toward Earth, but did connect with Earth’s magnetic environment, or magnetosphere, causing aurora to appear on the night of Monday, September 3.

Below you can check the main differences between coronal mass ejections and solar flares.

Direction

Solar flare: releases enormous amounts of energy that travel in all directions in space;

Coronal mass ejection: They are more like cannonballs, releasing a lot of concentrated matter that is shot in a single direction.


Speed

Solar flare: The energy released by solar flares travels at the speed of light,

Coronal mass ejection: A coronal mass ejection is a huge cloud of magnetized particles that is hurtled out into space and travels at over 1 million kilometers (600,000 miles) per hour.


Solar flare effects on humans
Solar flare Mid-level. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Time it takes to reach Earth

Solar flare: reaches Earth in 8 minutes.

Coronal mass ejection: takes about 3 days.


How it affects the Earth

The effects are similar, but not the same.

Solar flare: after a few minutes or hours, accelerated electrons and protons can damage satellites and electronic devices. Extreme X-rays and UV radiation can reach Earth at the speed of light, ionizing the upper layers of our atmosphere, which can cause radio blackouts and GPS navigation errors.

Coronal mass ejection: they are clouds of billions of tons of magnetized plasma and take a few days to reach the Earth. This shock can push the Earth’s magnetic fields, creating currents of particles that go towards the planet’s poles, which results in the aurora borealis.

In addition, CME can affect electronic devices and a variety (if not all types) of technology that we use in our daily lives, from radio, satellites (computers, internet, telephones, etc..), to the electrical grid, and it could even affect the water supply, since most of that supply relies on electric pumps. Because it’s concentrated like a cannon shot, a CME can do greater damage to our technology.


difference between solar flare and cme
M3.2 class solar flare (19 January 2012). (Credit: NASA).

What is a solar storm?

Since it’s a term that will be used a lot in this article, it’s important to clarify that solar storm is a word used to describe different types of solar activity, including solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

How long does a solar flare last?

Solar flares follow three stages, each of which can last from a few seconds to a few hours, depending on the intensity of the flare.

During the precursor phase, energy is released in the form of X-rays. Then the electrons, protons, and ions accelerate to approach the speed of light during the impulsive phase. The plasma heats up quickly, rising from about 10 million to 100 million kelvins.

coronal mass ejection vs solar flare
X Class solar flare sends “shockwaves” on the Sun. (Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA).

A flare not only emits a flash of visible light and a projection of plasma into circumstellar space but also emits radiation comprising the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

The final phase is decay, during which X-rays are again the only emissions detected.

Solar flare effects on humans

There is no scientific consensus on whether solar flares can have an effect on humans, but researcher Mitch Battros, in his book “Solar Rain: The Earth Changes Have Begun“, suggests that the same magnetic flux that affects Earth, can also affect humans, as we too have magnetic fields that surround us.

geomagnetic storm effects on humans
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Furthermore, some research suggests that charged particles emitted by the Sun in the form of solar flares and coronal mass ejections can trigger events such as earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, and tornadoes, which in turn are factors that lead to civil unrest, instability, and changes in human societies.

Solar activity and crime

In an old study from 1963 called “Geomagnetic parameters and Psychiatric Hospital Admissions”, three researchers assess whether there is a relationship between activity in the Earth’s magnetic field (which is affected by solar flares) and crime rates. The study fails to find any significant relationship, but reiterates that further research is needed on the matter.

Death rate

Another interesting study conducted between 1990-2004 explores the relationship between monthly death numbers and cosmophysical activities. In this study, they conclude that the number of deaths tends to increase in periods of low solar activity and high incidence of cosmic radiation, with the effect being more prominent in men than in women.

They presume this is because solar activity prevents the harmful effects of cosmic radiation.

Northern lights around Tromsø, Norway. Northern lights are the result of the interaction of atmospheric gases with particles originating from solar activities. (Credit: Gunnar Hildonen).

Unemployment and suicide rate

A 2006 Japanese study looked at the correlation between the number of sunspots (and therefore solar flares, they’re linked, remember?), business cycles, and suicide rate.

They found a statistically significant negative correlation between the number of sunspots and unemployment rate: when sunspots increase in number, unemployment tends to decrease.

The correlation between unemployment rate and suicide is positive: when unemployment increases, the suicide rate increases. Thus, the number of sunspots may have an indirect effect on the suicide rate: when the number of sunspots decreases, the suicide rate increases.

is a solar flare dangerous
Largest solar flare since 2017 spotted on the Sun. (Credit: NOAA Satellites).

Stroke

Geomagnetic storms (which can be caused by solar flares) are associated with a 19% increased risk of stroke, according to a 2006 study. That study used data from 453 participants from Sweden, France, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

In geomagnetic storms of moderate intensity, the stroke risk increases by 27%. In strong or severe geomagnetic storms, the risk increases by 52%.

Headache

The authors of the previous study speculate that magnetic oscillations may affect blood pressure, and it is known that high blood pressure can cause headaches.

what effects do solar flares have on earth
Note the two smaller eruptions before the big one. The Sun’s upper atmosphere (corona) is shown here. (Credit: Patrick McCauley/From Quarks to Quasars/SDO).

Heart rate

A more recent study, from 2018, examines the relationship between solar and geomagnetic activity and heart rate. The study took place over 5 months and included 16 participants, who had their heart rates monitored for 72 consecutive hours a week.

The researchers concluded that heart rate responds to solar and geomagnetic activity.

Human unrest

Finally, a famous Russian paper, published in 1924, investigates events in 72 countries over a period of time and finds a positive correlation between the number of sunspots and signs of human unrest such as wars, revolutions, riots, expeditions, and migrations.

A.L Tchijevsky, the author of the study, found that 80% of the most significant events occurred during solar maximums.

could a solar flare destroy the internet
The path of the moon arcs due to parallax. The Sun’s lower atmosphere (chromosphere) is shown here. (Credit: Patrick McCauley/From Quarks to Quasars/SDO).

Maybe there’s nothing to worry about

But of course, although the studies mentioned above have found a correlation between sunspots, solar flares, and changes in human behavior and health, they fail to explain the causal relationship between one thing and the other. Correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

According to NASA, from a health perspective, solar flares are nothing to worry about. “Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground,” they said. “However—when intense enough—they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel.”

(Credit: Valentine’s Day Solar Flare (NASA)).

Is a solar flare dangerous?

While there is still much debate regarding the effects of solar flares on human health and behavior, their effects on technology are well-known and documented.

In addition to disrupting radio transmissions, solar flares present the following dangers:

  • The strong rays emitted can harm astronauts and damage spacecraft. Civil aviation flight personnel are sometimes exposed (mean individual dose of 1.98 mSv per year in 2015);
  • UV radiation and X-rays can heat the outer atmosphere, affecting satellites in low orbit and reducing their useful life;
  • Geomagnetic storms can disturb the Earth’s magnetic field as a whole and damage satellites in high orbit;
  • Fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field can induce telluric currents in electrical transmission lines, generating high-intensity voltages and currents that can exceed the safety limits of electrical network equipment, causing power outages;
  • Certain very fast and very powerful particles can short-circuit a satellite, and even disable it and render it useless forever.
These images from 2014 show the first moments of an X-class flare in different wavelengths of light – seen as the bright spot that appears on the left limb of the sun. Hot solar material can be seen hovering above the active region in the sun’s atmosphere, the corona. (Credit: NASA/SDO).

Could a solar flare destroy the internet?

Scientists have warned for years that extreme solar activity could damage Earth’s power grids and potentially cause prolonged power outages. The impact of this solar emission could be fatal to Internet infrastructure, especially for intercontinental submarine cables.

In 2021, Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California presented an examination of the damage that a cloud of fast-moving magnetized solar particles could do to the internet, at the SIGCOMM 2021 conference. With a severe solar storm, even if power returns within hours or days, mass internet outages would persist.

could a solar flare destroy the internet
Submarine cables that make up the backbone of the internet.

The scientist stated, in an interview with the Wired magazine website, that the local and regional internet infrastructure would run a low risk of damage, since the optical fiber is not affected by geomagnetically induced currents. The problem is the long submarine cables that connect continents: a solar storm that damaged several of these cables could cause a massive loss of connectivity.

According to the researcher, the storm could “cut countries at the source”, even if it left local infrastructure intact. She recalled that, with the pandemic, we saw how the world was unprepared, without a protocol to deal with a global problem effectively. “And it’s the same with internet resilience,” she said. And she added: ”Our infrastructure is not prepared for a large-scale solar event. We have very limited understanding of what the extent of the damage would be.”

could a solar flare destroy the internet
(Credit: NASA).

Severe solar storms are so rare they have only occurred three times in recent history. Major events in 1859 and 1921 showed that geomagnetic disturbances can disrupt electrical infrastructure and communication lines. During the “Carrington Event” of 1859, compasses went haywire and the aurora borealis was visible at the equator in Colombia.

In 1989, a geomagnetic disturbance caused a nine-hour blackout across northeastern Canada — also before modern internet infrastructure. After three decades of low solar activity, Abdu Jyothi and other researchers believe the likelihood of another incident is increasing.

Why is the internet in danger?

could a solar flare destroy the internet
Intercontinental fiber optic cables. A strong enough solar event could affect the infrastructure that makes the internet possible. (Credit: Jean Claude Moschetti/REA/REDUX).

To send data across oceans, intercontinental cables are equipped with repeaters at intervals of approximately 50 to 150 kilometers (30 to 90 miles). These devices amplify the optical signal, ensuring nothing gets lost along the way.

Although a fiber optic cable is not vulnerable to interruptions by geomagnetically induced currents, the electronic components of the repeaters are. And constant repeater failures render an entire submarine cable inoperable.

could a solar flare destroy the internet
(Credit: Telecom Review Africa).

Undersea cables are buried only at certain points, separated by hundreds or thousands of kilometers, which leaves components vulnerable and exposed to geomagnetically induced currents. In addition, a large solar storm can also affect any equipment that orbits the Earth, disrupting services such as satellite internet and GPS.

Depending on where the outages occur, Abdu Jyothi says basic data routing systems like the Border Gateway Protocol and Domain Name System can start to malfunction, creating continual outages. It’s the Internet’s version of the traffic jams that would ensue if traffic lights went out at busy intersections in a major city.

could a solar flare destroy the internet

What are the chances of an extreme solar storm occurring?

Although strong solar storms are extremely rare, the stakes are too high and we cannot afford to be caught unawares. A prolonged disruption of global connectivity of this scale would affect nearly every industry and people on Earth.

Can a solar flare destroy Earth?

1972, Vietnam. Dozens of sea mines off the coast of Vietnam have mysteriously exploded. Later, these explosions were attributed to the influence of a strong solar storm. On that day, in the United States and the United Kingdom the auroras were visible – the phenomenon, under normal conditions, occurs only at the poles.

1859, electrical and telegraph networks spark and catch fire. Northern lights can be seen in tropical countries. A few days earlier, astronomers around the world had seen some spots growing in size on the Sun. These spots mean instability. This was the strongest solar storm to hit Earth on record, the Carrington Event.

Now to the main question – could a solar flare destroy the Earth?

Can a solar flare destroy Earth
(Credit: Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library/Getty Images).

A solar flare would not be able to destroy Earth. Earth is too big and too strong for a solar flare to do anything.

So, let’s change the question. Could a solar flare cause an apocalypse? Yup. A strong enough solar flare could burn out electricity and internet grids around the world, as well as computers and smartphones.

Today, we are heavily dependent on electricity and the internet. They are essential not only for leisure but for basic services such as sanitation, health, education, and governance. Fortunately, the Carrington Event appears to have had no impact on people’s health.

For that, we would need something more violent, like a star that exploded 359 million years ago in a supernova, 65 light years away from Earth, and possibly wiped out 70% of Earth’s invertebrates, due to the incredible incidence of ultraviolet light resulting from the death of the star.

But rest assured, nothing like this will hit Earth for millions of years to come.

what effects do solar flares have on earth
Image showing technology and infrastructure that can be affected by space weather events. (Credit: NASA).

What was the Carrington Event of 1859?

On the morning of September 1, 1859, astronomer Richard Carrington was observing the Sun with a telescope. The instrument projected the image of our star onto a canvas, and Carrington drew the sunspots he saw — in this case, he was capturing a particularly large group of them. Everything was going well, until, suddenly, he noticed two very luminous shapes over the stains.

Bright structures appeared and intensified; then they twisted into a bean-like shape. The astronomer noticed that he was seeing something unprecedented, and soon called a witness to watch the phenomenon with him; barely a minute had passed and the structures had changed again. Five minutes later, he and the witness watched the sunspots shrink to the size of dots, then disappear.

solar flare in 1859
A model of the 1859 Carrington Event. (Credit: NASA/Bridgman/Duberstein).

The best part was yet to come. Before the next day’s dawn, the skies across the planet glowed in auroras colored with shades of red, green, and lilac. They were so luminous that newspapers could be read at night, and they appeared in tropical latitudes in regions such as Cuba, Jamaica, Hawaii, and elsewhere; normally, auroras appear only in regions close to the poles of the planet.

In addition, the disturbances were so severe that telegraph operators in the United States reported receiving electric shocks, seeing sparks coming out of their equipment and paper catching fire – some reports claim that there were operators who managed to use the devices without batteries! Furthermore, instruments that measured Earth’s magnetism showed abnormal behavior.

On that day, the world experienced what came to be known as the Carrington Event, the largest geomagnetic storm in history.

What if the Carrington Event happened today?

According to NASA, the Carrington Event was caused by a large solar flare, so intense that it produced a peak of visible light and a huge coronal mass ejection, formed by a cloud of electrically charged particles and magnetic fields spewed towards the Earth.

When it arrived here, the CME hit the magnetic field that protects our planet and generated a geomagnetic storm, which affected the entire structure of the Earth’s magnetic field.

The technology was relatively simple back then, but even then, people had to disconnect the telegraph wires to stop the sparks from coming out of them.

The reports of the effects caused by the solar storm are curious, but they also serve as a warning: today, a geomagnetic storm with the same intensity as that of the Carrington Event would cause a truly global catastrophe.

(Credit: NASA).

The induced currents generated by the storm can flow through electrical grids. These geomagnetically induced currents can exceed 100 amps (an amount equivalent to the electricity supplied to several homes) which, when flowing through electrical components connected to the grid, such as transformers and sensors, would cause internal damage to the components. In other words, they could “fry” a good part of our electrical grid infrastructure.

Solar particles can cause power surges, enough to blow up even large transformers — and if hundreds of them are damaged at once, it can take some time to replace them. In the case of cities with highly connected energy infrastructure, a domino effect of electrical failures could occur. Have you ever imagined entire cities without electricity for weeks or even months?

Communication could be affected on a global scale, with internet providers having their service disrupted, which, in turn, would affect different systems that depend on the internet to function.

Satellites would also be affected: the magnetosphere is not a perfect defense mechanism. The storm could burn satellite circuits and increase the density of the atmosphere. The increased density means more “drag” on satellites, which can fall back to Earth.

How to protect Earth from solar storms?

Fortunately, solar storms like the one in the Carrington Event usually only happen once every 500 years. On the other hand, smaller storms happen frequently, and others with half that intensity occur every 50 years. Regardless, scientists are always on the lookout for particles ejected by the Sun toward Earth.

The heat from these emissions may not reach us, but the electrically charged particles coming from our star do. Of course, these particles don’t make it to the ground because we’re protected by the magnetosphere, but by now it’s clear that they can be dangerous for our infrastructure, right?

How to protect Earth from solar storms
The Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, spacecraft will orbit between Earth and the sun. (Credit: NOAA)

In the end, the best way to avoid the effects of solar storms is to predict them in advance. Thus, vulnerable networks and equipment can be disconnected, preventing damage from spreading. The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) collects important data on the speed of solar flares, and even better warning systems are under development.

With the proper data in hand, scientists at NASA and other space agencies can alert power companies, satellite operators, and even airline pilots to prepare themselves and avoid complications.

Written by John Henrique

John has a degree in IT and is the founder of Hyperaxion. He is a science enthusiast and can usually be found reading a book or playing role-playing games.

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