In 1989, many Canadians living in the province of Quebec had to undergo a nine-hour power outage due to a disruption in the Hydro Quebec Grid. The cause was not manmade or was due to a common natural disaster, but was the result of an extraterrestrial event that took place on the Sun. Scientists described the event that took place in Canada in 1989 as a major ‘solar wind’, which developed into a ‘geomagnetic storm.’ This article will elaborate the term ‘solar wind’ and will describe how a ‘solar wind’ can adversely affect the earth.
What is a solar wind?
Solar winds are created from the charged particles of protons and electrons generated within the sun's core and are ejected from the suns outer atmosphere into the deep space. It travels as a geomagnetic storm, which drags the interplanetary magnetic field along its path. The intensity of such solar winds are more during ‘high activity’ periods of the sun and these periods can be determined with the presence of increasing number of sunspots, solar flares and coronal holes. At the same time, the amount of charged particles in the solar wind would be lower when the suns activity becomes low. Usually, such highs and lows take place in the sun in eleven-year cycles and during such highs, most planets, including the earth, are most vulnerable to experience geomagnetic disturbances such as the one that took place in 1989.
How do planets protect themselves from solar winds?
Each planet in the solar system has its own magnetic field, which can deflect the geomagnetic effects of solar winds. However, depending on the proximity to the sun and the strength of the atmospheric magnetic field, the amount of deflection could vary from one planet to another. Due to its position, planet earth can count on the distance as well as its magnetic field to minimize the effects of solar winds even at times of coronal mass ejections, although the north and south poles of the earth remain vulnerable to the effects of solar storms to a certain extent.
What is a ‘coronal mass ejection’?
During the height of activity in the sun, there is the possibility of ejecting few billion tons of plasma towards the earth. Such an event is known as a coronal mass ejection and is said to travel few million miles per hour in its path. Such radiation causes geomagnetic storms in the earth’s magnetic field upon reaching the earth within 3 to 4 days from its ejection from the sun.
What are the effects of ‘solar winds’?
As described earlier, upon reaching the earth’s magnetic field, most solar wind particles are deflected although some creep into the atmosphere at the two poles. As a result, these regions in the world, namely areas close to the North Pole and the South Pole, may experience auroras, which are also known as ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ lights. At times, solar winds, especially the ones that are capable of creating geomagnetic storms, can affect the functioning of manmade objects such as satellites, navigation systems as well as communication modalities. Flight navigations may show faulty readings during such events, while the ships in the sea may not be able to communicate with the land. Such geomagnetic storms can also affect electric grids as the charged particles can intensify the current generated or carried through such grids. Therefore, during an intense solar wind, electrical grids could become overloaded and therefore affect any appliance that is attached to such grids. At the same time, geomagnetic storms can also induce electricity into long conductive materials such as pipelines and corrode such objects much faster.
Astronauts who are in outer space are also vulnerable to solar winds as they can be exposed to radiation. As a result, there is a possibility of developing cancers and other radiation related illnesses, which may even be fatal in some instances. Lastly, it is also believed that the shifting of the poles that took place between 900 to 1500 BC was the result of intense solar winds during that time.