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... Solar flares, too

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Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011
 

A Valentine's Day solar flare -- the largest since Dec. 5, 2006, and part of an expected upswing in the 11-year cycle of solar activity -- is cause for legitimate concern. But don't shoot Bruce Willis into space or bet the farm on solar-flare shields just yet.

Solar flares' charged particles crash into Earth's atmosphere 20 to 30 hours later. Resulting electromagnetic disruption affects radio, satellites, power grids and high-tech marvels such as GPS -- on which humanity depends far more today than during the last solar upswing about a decade ago.

Some scientists now warn of a potential $2 trillion "solar 'Katrina.'" The head of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the Financial Times: "Predict and prepare should be the watchwords."

The strongest flare ever recorded wiped out much of Earth's then-new telegraph network in 1859, yet occurred during a "weak" cycle. So the threat can't be dismissed, despite NASA dubbing the Feb. 14 flare "rather weak." Whatever steps can be taken to minimize that threat should be taken.

Still, whatever countermeasures mankind can employ surely are puny compared to the forces that solar flares unleash. Yes, the sun does bear watching. But we must be prepared to understand that the limits of our defenses can be sobering.

 

 
 


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