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HOW MIGHT A SOLAR FLARE COME ABOUT?

Picture this! All is set for the three days G30 Solar Storm (G30SS) conference in Paris themed “The Human Factor in a Solar Flare.” This is 20th May 2028, the G30SS conference is the fifth in this series. The 500 invited delegates are slowly trickling into the auditorium while the other 5000 solar physicists and forecasters are virtually present. Those in the auditorium are coalescing into small groups ahead of the meeting. Over 100 journalists have their digi-cameras rolling, ready to tell the Paris G30SS story. The mood is one of excitement and expectation. Ms. Carlota Canada, the outgoing G30 president, takes the stage for the official opening of G30SS. Suddenly Paris is engulfed in an unusual aurora that is unbearable to the naked eye. For about an hour, this radiation turns the traditionally lively Paris into a dull city. What happened? How did this burst of radiation come about?


The Paris G30SS aurora may not be hypothetical. There is evidence that solar flares are cyclical. With the Sun still crackling and hurling blistering bursts of energy into space, we can only be certain that another 1859 Carrington Event – or worse - is going to happen someday. In fact, as late as October 2020, solar scientists confirmed that the Sun was still spewing out pretty powerful solar flares. Is this immense heavenly body angry with us? Probably not! It is all about nature doing its thing while the deity watches. But how do these solar flares come about?


Solar flares are primarily natural phenomena. Solar physicists will tell you that the Sun’s outer surface is easily disturbed by gravitational forces. This disturbance results in the formation of magnetic knots. Currents of electrified gases then ferry these magnetic knots and deposit them on the Sun’s surface. The results are darker and cooler sunspots whose temperature is about 4,300oC. As the Sun flips around its magnetic field, periodic gigantic explosions occur from these sunspots. The result is solar flares of diverse magnetic strengths. From NASA records, the X-class flares are the strongest while the M-class are the weakest. With such high solar temperatures, coupled with strong solar flares bursts, any disturbances on the distant Earth could have a lethal impact upon both civilization and humanity.


The natural occurrence of a solar flare is, however, exacerbated by diverse human activities. One of these is the electromagnetic pulse (EMP). This is an intense burst of energy from detonation of nuclear weapons. Once the EMP energy is released into the atmosphere, it creates a momentary surge of electrical current in the circuitry of any electrical unshielded devices. While a large EMP wave is produced by a single nuclear explosion, smaller-scale EMP waves can be generated by non-nuclear devices with reactive chemicals. Although the threat of EMP attack may be difficult to determine globally, the probability of its occurrence is relatively high. This is mainly due to the growing worldwide access to newer technologies and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There is also a limited EMP vulnerability testing on the growing number of modern electronic systems.


Scientists have predicted a possible widespread collapse of electronic power plants and grids should a strong EMP occur today. Such a collapse could result to cascading effects on interdependent infrastructures. If a prolonged loss of electricity occurs, it could lead to an ultimate lack of basic elements necessary to sustain life. This is especially more likely in densely populated urban and suburban communities. EMP can also be used as a weapon for ills such as cyber warfare or cyber terrorism. Simply put, EMP has the potential to wipe out all modern communication, computers systems, transport and other electronic gadgets.


The rapidly growing global population is another man-made threat. The electricity demands of the over 7.7 billion people has increased the potential consequences of a strong solar flare. Two thirds of this population is now urbanized compared to a third in 1950. The pressure is more in developing countries, especially in Africa and Asia where 90 percent of the growth of urbanization is taking place. The UN predicts that seven of the ten new megacities expected by 2030 will be in Africa. This rapid urbanization has resulted to increased demand for food, water, education, health care, housing, jobs, and industrialization. Semi-permanent settlements and fast growing but poor slums characterize these megacities. The situation is expected to worsen by 2025 when 1.6 billion urban dwellers could face severe food, water and housing shortage. But what is the one thing impacting all these need areas? Electricity! Today, the demand and use of electricity shapes virtually every aspect of human life.


Soaring electricity demand has translated into millions of installments of power plants, high-voltage transformers and complex networks of power supply. To protect these power sources from lightning strikes, transmission companies ensure that the power plants and grids are intricately earthed. Unfortunately, these same ground connections serve as avenues for the solar electricity to reach into the Earth’s geomagnetic fields. At the same time, electricity companies are reluctant to invest in protective measures. Reason? It is purely a game of balancing the high cost of investment and the bottom line.


It is rather sad to admit that the global community is ill prepared to monitor solar flare occurrences. For instance, most old satellite equipment requires upgrades while others have become obsolete. In December 2020, the 900-ton Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, came tumbling down. The over 60 years old satellite equipment provided research information on solar bodies and activities likely to threaten life on Earth. Due to the very high cost of replacing such equipment, governments are reluctant to even plan for replacement. Has humanity set itself up for extinction?


What would bring a shift towards increased commitment to mitigating the causes and threats of solar flares? The growing fear of the devasting impacts of solar flares and EMP on electricity and its aftermaths will probably be the greatest incentive for change. Both developed and under-developed nations are likely to engage in serious talks on the best ways of mitigating the causes and threats of solar flares. Key among some of the commitments is prioritization of the safety of humanity, protection of terrestrial power sources, as well as adherence to regional EMP mitigation measures. For instance, global financial institutions could tie financial support for national development to compliance on solar fare mitigation measures. Such transregional commitments will most likely shape the national, regional and global economic, political, social, and environmental goals. The adherence to such agreements will call for strong social trust.


Primarily, a solar flare is a natural phenomenon. There is clearly no guarantee that the Sun’s activity and formations of sunspots are about to slow down soon. With infinite number of solar flares produced every year, a solar attack is likely to strike one day. However, while the strength of a solar flare is key to its attack on the Earth, the occurrence of a solar flare is exacerbated by various human threats. Key among them is EMP and the demands of the global population. This notwithstanding, the growing fear of the adverse impact of solar flare is likely to be a significant incentive for change.


© Anne Kyoya 2021

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