We Probably Don't Have That Long Until A Huge Solar Flare Hits Earth, According To A New Study

A solar flare captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory back in October 2015, seen here in the lower right of the image. SDO/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Robin Andrews 17 Oct 2017, 15:07

Back in 1859, a powerful storm on the Sun launched colossal solar flares towards Earth, and the subsequent electrical surge triggered the shutdown of telegraph systems all over the planet.

According to a new paper in The Astrophysical Journal, there’s a solid chance that another such storm could impact Earth within 100 years – and this time around, the consequences would be far greater. Not only would it annihilate electrical circuits in a world covered in them, but it would also bring about an estimated $10 trillion worth of damage.

Avi Loeb and Manasvi Lingham, two renowned astrophysicists at Harvard University, have been concerned with the prospect of a so-called “superflare” for some time now. Unlike most, they’re far more worried about superflares than asteroid impacts or volcanic supereruptions.

They point out in their new study that, in the worst case scenarios, “the most powerful superflares can serve as plausible drivers of extinction events," and that "the risk posed by superflares has not been sufficiently appreciated.”

Using the geological record, along with data from other Sun-like stars, the pair worked out the frequency of various types of superflare impacting Earth. They found that extreme, atmosphere-eroding, extinction-level superflares occur on the Sun once every 20 million years. Additionally, they found that the chances of one able to cause major ecological and technological damage occurring within the next century is around one-in-1,000. A weaker one that just causes damage to electrical systems is even more likely, perhaps one-in-eight.

Just as a point of comparison, the chance of you witnessing a supervolcanic blast in your lifetime – something covered far more by the media – is around 90,000 times less likely compared to experiencing a type of superflare.

Just recently, these two researchers penned a study detailing how an Earth-sized magnetic shield could be used to defend ourselves from such an event. Although prohibitively expensive, perhaps it’s something that humanity should consider if the chances of a superflare event are so disturbingly high.

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