Off the Beaten Track
in Vol. 13 - January Issue - Year 2012
Solar flare - size comparison with Earth
He had detached the batteries from the telegraph system two hours earlier. The elderly man tinkered about the kitchen, preparing a frugal dinner and enjoying the quiet hours of the evening by the soft glow of the oil lamps in his isolated wooden hut. This lifestyle suited him just fine. His wife had died many years ago and his children now had families of their own in the city. He saw them only two or three times a year and that also suited him just fine. After forty years of honorable, if somewhat drab, service at a post office in town, he had jumped at the offer to set up and run a telegraph station on the outskirts of a village near the woods where he had been born. The nearby logging company gave him what little work he had to do on the telegraph machine and, save for the occasional telegram advising of a birth or a death in one of the loggers’ families, by early afternoon he had already finished his day’s work. He had plenty of time to think about things. The aroma arising from the pot on the fire was very promising.
Suddenly his musings were interrupted by a sound coming from the next room: a metallic, mechanical, ticking sound. How could that be? He was very sure he had disconnected the equipment. His cat remained curled in a corner of the kitchen, but its eyes and ears were now fixed on the door. Almost on tiptoe, the man slowly entered the small space that was both his living room and his work area. His jaw dropped as he stared at the two power cables dangling loosely from the armrest of his chair. The telegraph machine continued to tick, receiving a message, which went on well into the night…
Solar storms occur in varying degrees of intensity and frequency, depending on the solar cycle, which lasts approximately eleven years. In their strongest manifestations, solar storms generate solar flares, which appear as huge cloudlike columns rising from the sun’s surface when viewed with specially filtered telescopes on Earth. These flares are created by the release of huge amounts of magnetic energy, projecting electrons, ions and atoms through the sun’s atmosphere at nearly the speed of light. If the flare is strong enough and if it is generated in an area on the sun’s surface which is facing the Earth, then it will reach our planet in three or four days and it will disrupt radio, television and radar signals, in addition to causing malfunctions in electrical equipment and electric power distribution networks. The most spectacular effects of strong solar flares are aurorae around the Earth’s magnetic poles, aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere known as Northern Lights and aurora australis in the southern hemisphere known as Southern Lights. These aurorae appear as patterns of colored lights in the night sky and are caused by the collision between the charged particles arriving from the sun and atoms in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Solar flares have caused various levels of disruption on Earth in the years 1921, 1960, 1972, 1989 and 2005, but none reached the intensity of the most powerful solar storm in recorded history, which took place in 1859. It was recorded by the British astronomer Richard Carrington from the 28th of August to the 2nd of September, when Carrington observed a series of flares on the sun’s surface which grew in intensity until they reached their peak on the 1st of September, generating a single massive flare which took only eighteen hours to reach the Earth and which was named the Carrington Super Flare in his honor. On the night of the 3rd of September, this Super Flare created aurorae in both hemispheres which were large enough to be visible near the equator and so bright that people could read newspapers only by their light. The aurorae lasted about a week and reached heights of fifty to five hundred miles above the Earth’s surface. More mysteriously, the Super Flare caused the deflection of magnetic needles, the decomposition of chemical solutions and massive failures and malfunctions in telegraph systems around the world, making it appear that some telegraph machines were sending and receiving messages even when they were disconnected from their power source.
By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN & Sales Manager, Pometon Abrasives
Author: Giovanni Gregorat