Friday, February 18, 2011

Beware the sunny days to come

The sun is a wonderful thing.

It is an almost limitless source of energy that keeps us warm, provides us with food and has the potential to eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels.

After a cold, dark winter, it's great to feel the warm sun on your face and enjoy its therapeutic effects on one's state of mind.

However, the sun is not entirely benign. Along with the good that it delivers -- come dangers.

In the case of mere human beings, that danger can be DNA damage caused by the intense ultra-violet radiation -- damage that can result in fatal melanomas.

And, in the case of our technology, it can also bring the risk of massive failures on a global scale.

Just this week the sun demonstrated its power to do harm by creating a series of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that hurled a cloud of charged particles out into space -- some of them headed in our direction.

When these charged particles hit the earth's magnetosphere, they create massive changes in the field which surrounds our planet and these changes can induce massive currents in any conductors across which they pass.

The effect of these magnetic disturbances can be anything from a harmless increase in the level of static noise on our radios -- to huge current surges that destroy transformers and switching gear throughout the electricity grids of the world.

What's more, any satellites that might be orbiting on the sunny-side of the earth can also encounter forces that could effectively knock out the delicate electronic systems onboard.

In a single wave of destruction, much of our communications, GPS and power reticulation could be rendered inert -- all be cause the sun had a bit of a hiccup.

Of course these events have happened before - but it's only been the last hundred years or so that we've made ourselves vulnerable to them. Go back a few centuries and no matter how hard the sun tried to blast us with these CMEs, we simply would not have noticed. No radio, no reticulated electricity, no hi-tech electronics.

Today however, it's a completely different story and some are predicting that it's only a matter of time before a significant solar event wreaks havoc on your hi-tech world.

This week's CME is said to signal the start of a new burst of activity from the sun, in the form of a new solar sun-spot cycle.

Hold on to your hats folk -- chances are nothing will come of it -- but then again, that's probably what they said about that little tremor in Christchurch a few months back.

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