The solar wind is a phenomenon that occurs in space. The wind originates on the surface of the Sun when energy escapes the corona and is blown through space to the Earth’s atmosphere. The particles are strongly charged from the heat and pressure of the Sun. The effects from the solar wind can be detected on Earth in a number of significant ways.
What Causes Solar Winds?
Solar winds begin on the Sun’s corona, an area surrounding the surface that extends to millions of kilometers. Millions of particles burst out from the Sun continuously in a plasma form. This steam, called the solar wind, consists of protons and electrons, as well as ions of almost every element in the periodic table. As the pressure from the Sun attempts to push the particles away, gravity attempts to keep them in. The wind is a sort of leak in gravity’s force. Two types of solar wind develop, the slow wind associated with closed magnetic fields around the equator of the Sun, and the fast wind, which slip through the magnetic fields around the Polar Regions. The wind is continuous but varies in intensity, particularly during times of sunspot activity.
Solar winds cause disturbances in the ionosphere of the Earth due to the charged particles that are ejected. These highly-charged particles become excited when they hit the atmosphere and they must release energy to restore their normal state. As the particles move along the magnetic field that surrounds the Earth, it causes atoms to give off light. This produces the aurora at the polar region, the “northern lights” of flashing, dancing green-yellow light.
Solar wind that is associated with increased sunspot activity can cause sophisticated technology used in space and on Earth to malfunction. The wind can put satellites and other electronic used in space completely out of service. It can also cause power grids on Earth to fail. Communication on airplanes can black out during periods of high solar activity that produces strong solar wind disturbances.
Strong solar activity like flares and wind can also affect navigational equipment for ships. The highly charged particles can disrupt radio waves and wireless communications, including GPS systems that many people depend upon for their transportation. Military operations can also be disrupted by this “space weather,” creating additional hazards for personnel. A December 6, 2006 geomagnetic storm that shut down navigational equipment used by the scientists, researchers, military and civilians was a clear example of this effect.
The effects of solar winds and flares on the Earth can cause disruptions to equipment and danger to lives. Scientists monitor solar activity closely to attempt to anticipate many of these problems.