Recently I finished a bunch of research on solar flare activity for a story I'm writing. Interestingly enough, on Monday the sun let loose its most powerful eruption in more than four years disrupting radio communications and generating concern around the world. But it could have been a lot worse, experts say.
Despite its strength, Monday's solar storm was a baby compared to several previous blasts, and it provides just a hint of what the sun is capable of. A true monster storm has the potential to wreak havoc on a global scale, knocking out communications systems, endangering satellites and astronauts and causing perhaps trillions of dollars in damages.
The sun's activity cycle is ramping up, so more storms will likely be coming our way over the next few years. That's not to say the big one is imminent, experts say — but you never can tell. And analysts warn that humanity is more dependent than ever on the high-tech equipment that can be affected by a solar storm, the stakes are higher than in the past.
Wow! That's what I said upon hearing this news. When I contemplated this story, I asked the question 'what if' the sun went crazy and caused real potential danger for an earth-like planet? My SF story is close, too close to reality.
According to my research, solar storm events come in several different flavors.
Solar flares are intense bursts of radiation that send waves of photons streaming toward Earth. The scale measuring their strength has three general categories – Class C, Class M and Class X – with Class X flares being the most powerful. Monday's Valentine's Day solar flare registered a Class X2.2 on that scale.
Other storms, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), are large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun's surface, sending lots of particles our way. Both flares and CMEs have the same root cause — a disruption of the magnetic field in the sun's outer atmosphere. And both events can affect life here on Earth.
The most severe damage comes from the powerful CMEs. Particles from these outbursts take longer to reach us — up to three days. But when they get here, their interaction with Earth's magnetic field can cause massive "geomagnetic storms," which have the potential to wreak long-lasting havoc around the globe. Monday night's storm produced both a big solar flare and CMEs.
It's hard not to be excited and a little weird too, because my story has a lot of this same kind of looming catastrophe. Of course my stories are all about the romance, and this one is no different. Sub plots are also as important in SFR as the romance.
In the light of what occurred on Monday, I would like to share an unedited excerpt from my latest story. Most of the action takes place on an orbiting Space Station just below the Planet's exosphere. The Astroscientists on Starlab who are actually searching for life on other planets, have just discovered what could spell disaster for their world.
Karla stood in the tight-nit area of Starlab’s main research hub and peered over Frank’s shoulder, viewing the monitors as Jay stood next to her.
Frank cleared his throat then spoke. “During my watch last night, I raised the remote UV filters on scope two and aimed it directly at our sun.” He paused and looked up at Karla. There is no doubt our sun's solar flare and CME activity is increasing at a much too rapid rate. Last night's event eruption registered a massive Class X9.6, with more data coming in as we speak. Our planet is in peril. If CME continue to bombard us at this high rate, well, I don’t have to tell you where we are headed.”
* * * *From his shielded high orbiting spacecraft above the planet, he observed the humans on their space station as they bristled about in fear. Their own sun was about to destroy their world…
Photos from Monday's actual sun flare activity available from Space.com