This lesson will go over three events caused by magnetic interactions in our Sun. They are prominences, flares, and coronal mass ejections. We’ll also touch base on how the latter two can affect life on Earth.
The Sun’s Effects on Earth
The Sun quite obviously has an effect on Earth. It provides us with sunlight, which is good for much more than a tan. Sunlight helps plants grow. Those plants are then eaten by animals that we then rely on for everything from food to leather and glue.
But the Sun does have a bit of a wicked side. Every now and then it produces magnetic solar phenomena that hurt our way of life on Earth. How this is so and what these magnetic phenomena are, you’ll learn very shortly.
Prominence and Filaments
One of these magnetic solar phenomena is called a prominence, a bright, relatively dense, and relatively cool arched cloud of ionized gas in the chromosphere and corona of the Sun.
A prominence is made of ionized gas that’s ensnared by a magnetic arch, or loop, that rises up through the photosphere, then the chromosphere, and finally into the corona. Some prominences last for a few hours, while others can hang around for many months. These prominences are bright when set against the background of darker space, but a prominence, seen from above and set against the Sun’s bright surface, appears as a dark filament.
More profound than prominences are solar flares, which can cause electrical power surges and damage to satellites orbiting Earth. A solar flare is a sudden, brief (typically lasting only a few minutes), and explosive release of solar magnetic energy that heats and accelerates the gas in the Sun’s atmosphere.Solar flares occur in active regions of the Sun, which are areas of the Sun that house sunspot groups. Here, magnetic fields merge in such a way that they release a lot of energy in the form of high-energy protons and electrons, as well as short-wavelength photons (X-ray and UV photons).
The formation of solar flares from the merging of magnetic fields is called a reconnection event.Eight minutes after the release of these photons, they reach Earth and increase the ionization of our atmosphere. Meaning, they enhance our ionosphere. This disrupts radio communications on Earth. Days later, many particles from this flare reach Earth as part of the solar wind.
They disrupt the Earth’s magnetic field and consequently negatively affect navigation systems.The most energetic of the solar flares carry more energy than a billion hydrogen bombs.
Coronal Mass Ejections
And although that sounds pretty powerful, solar flares are no match for a coronal mass ejection (CME), an eruption of matter from the solar corona associated with the Sun’s magnetic field. These guys are also caused by reconnection events, but they last a bit longer than flares, closer to a few hours.
Coronal mass ejections blast a billion tons of hot, ionized, coronal gas into space at over 200 km/s, and sometimes with speeds as great as 1,000 km/s.If a powerful CME hits Earth, it can severely disrupt our lives. Blackouts would occur everywhere; it would take years to repair the electrical grid, and could cost over $2 trillion dollars to do so. Maybe that seems like it’s a non-issue, but think about this.
If the power grids go out for a long time, you won’t have your Internet, you won’t have your TV, and you won’t be able to flush your toilet. How’s that for a smelly mess caused by our life-giving Sun?
So, you see, our Sun is indeed a double-edged sword in many ways. It gives us life but can make it miserable for us as well – miserable because the Sun has wacky magnetic events going on that produce things that can affect life on Earth.
These events we learned about include prominences. A prominence is a bright, relatively dense, and relatively cool arched cloud of ionized gas in the chromosphere and corona of the Sun. A prominence, seen from above and set against the Sun’s bright surface, appears as a dark filament.We also went over flares. A solar flare is a sudden, brief (typically lasting only a few minutes), and explosive release of solar magnetic energy that heats and accelerates the gas in the Sun’s atmosphere.
The formation of solar flares from the merging of magnetic fields is called a reconnection event.And finally, we went over coronal mass ejections. A coronal mass ejection is an eruption of matter from the solar corona associated with the Sun’s magnetic field.
This lesson should prepare you to:
- Describe a prominence, a solar flare, and a coronal mass ejection
- Explain how solar flares and coronal mass ejections can affect Earth
- Define filament and reconnection event