Killer flares won't destroy Earth, says NASA

Posted by Emma Woollacott

NASA's explained - with some weariness, one imagines - that next year really isn't going to see the release of any massive solar flares which could destroy the Earth.

For a start, it points out, the solar maximum doesn't actually coincide with any Mayan end-of-world predictions, but will arrive late in 2013 or early 2014.

And in any case, everybody over the age of 11 has already experienced one solar maximum and lived to tell the tale.

"Most importantly, however, there simply isn't enough energy in the sun to send a killer fireball 93 million miles to destroy Earth," says NASA.

That's the good news - but the bad news is that solar flares could cause some pretty considerable damage. While the heat of a solar flare can't make it all the way to our globe, electromagnetic radiation and energetic particles certainly can.

This can temporarily alter the upper atmosphere creating disruptions with signal transmission from, say, a GPS satellite, which could cause it to be off by many yards.

Even more disruptively, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) can propel bursts of particles and electromagnetic fluctuations right into the Earth's atmosphere. These can induce electric fluctuations at ground level that could blow out transformers in power grids, and can also collide with satellite electronics systems and cause disruptions.

"In an increasingly technological world, where almost everyone relies on cell phones and GPS controls not just your in-car map system, but also airplane navigation and the extremely accurate clocks that govern financial transactions, space weather is a serious matter," says NASA.

"But it is a problem the same way hurricanes are a problem. One can protect oneself with advance information and proper precautions."

Scientists at NASA and NOAA issue warnings to electric companies, spacecraft operators and airline pilots before a CME, allowing them to take precautions.