These days, people on Earth face a lot of potential threats.

Considering the attitudes and actions of countries like China, North Korea, Iran and Russia (just to name a few), danger appears to exist in many regions of the planet. Add to that Islamic factions like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and many others, along with various power-hungry domestic groups with weird agendas, and the potential for threats is greater than ever before.

But while there’s no denying that these human-based forms of threats are very real, it’s possible that they’re not our biggest issue with regard to safety and well being.

No, it’s possible that the most significant threat we Earthlings face is much bigger – literally. It’s possible that our main source of worry is about 93 million miles away.

It’s possible that our biggest threat is the Sun.

Yep, that medium-sized star at the center of our solar system has a habit that could be a major threat to our way of life, or even our lives.

For the record, the Sun is an almost perfect sphere of super-heated plasma, fueled by a constant series of nuclear fusion reactions in its core. Its diameter is 109 times larger than that of Earth and its mass is 330,000 times greater than Earth’s (about 75-percent of which is hydrogen and most of the rest being helium).

The Sun is by far the greatest source of energy for all life on Earth, but it could also snuff that life out in an instant via a common behavior called a “coronal mass ejection,” or CME.

Basically, a CME is a gigantic expulsion of solar material that can measure up to billions of tons, and can head outward from the Sun’s surface at speeds reaching more than 1,800 miles per second.

The resulting geomagnetic or “solar storms” are what represent the threat. The faster versions could reach Earth in a day or so, while the slower variety might take a few days.

While there’s no record of a CME causing widespread harm or extinction of living organisms, what if a big, strong CME hit Earth?

The answer isn’t all that pleasant.

And there’s actually historical evidence of what’s possible, as a big one did blast the planet in early September 1859. It’s called the Carrington Event, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington, who documented the resulting “white solar flare” along with his colleague Richard Hodgson.

Back then, there was no Internet or electrical “grid,” but the solar outburst badly damaged existing telegraph systems. Experts believe that if something similar happened today, the subsequent electrical disruptions, blackouts and other damage would be catastrophic, and more than likely bring society as we know it to a screeching halt.

Earth is puny compared to the Sun. A big CME would even dwarf the planet.

Worse yet, some scientists with knowledge of the subject think that a bigger CME than the Carrington Event (or a “perfect coronal mass ejection”) would damage more than just electrical infrastructure and could even cause rampant death among all Earthly life forms. If that sounds far-fetched, consider the fact that a really big CME would be much, much larger in area than Earth and pack a punch of unimaginable power and magnitude.

But while “the big one” hasn’t happened (at least since records of such things began being kept), CMEs take place with frequency. In fact, Earth has recently experienced more than one of what experts call “glancing blow” CMEs (the kind that don’t cause any problems but are kind of like a gentle reminder from the Sun), including one that resulted in a greatly enhanced display of Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis) in Sweden and other Scandinavian locales.

Anyway, the good news is, there’s no record of a CME hitting Earth that was big enough to threaten more than man-made contraptions.

But the bad news is, that’s apparently possible. And unfortunately, if it happens, stored-up food and ammunition might not be of any help.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Contact him by phone at 417-967-2000 or by email at ddavison@houstonherald.com.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply