How Could the Northern Lights Bring Our Demise?

Tara Magill

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit UCL and attend a lecture entitled ‘Solar Eruptions, Earth’s Magnetic Field & Why Space Weather is Important to Modern Society’. At first glance, this may seem like an exceedingly tedious subject, but over the course of 90 minutes, Dr Anasuya Aruliah of the Atmospheric Physics Laboratory at UCL Department of Physics & Astronomy explained to the packed lecture hall how the activity of the sun has such a massive impact in all of our lives.

We all know what a huge role the sun has played in the history of the solar system – without it, there would be no solar system, let alone life as we know it. For thousands of years, our celestial parent was worshiped as a deity by countless cultures – and rightly so. Before the development of science, it would be easy to believe that this ball of hot plasma was our God, bringing life to this otherwise desolate planet and providing us with the warmth and light necessary to keep living.

The sun continues to provide us with all of our energy, whether it be from the obvious solar panels or from the fossil fuels that we burn (the sun provided the conditions necessary for life, and so produced the animals and plants that are now fossils beneath our surface). However, there are many, less apparent ways that the sun has major effects on our daily business here on planet Earth.

Fig. 1: The tubes represent magnetic field lines, blue when the field points towards the centre and yellow when away. The rotation axis of the Earth is centred and vertical. The dense clusters of lines are within the Earth’s core.

As you can tell from the title, Dr Aruliah’s presentation was surrounding the effects that the magnetic fields of both Earth and the Sun interact and how this can change our lives. This field of physics is becoming more and more prominent; this is due to an impending switch in the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field, which could leave us vulnerable to powerful solar winds capable ofknocking out global communications and power.

The Earth is constantly bombarded with solar winds from the sun. However, the only time that this is visible is during the aurora, also known as the Northern Lights. This phenomenon occurs when the solar wind is strong enough to interact with our atmosphere. Other planets with a much thinner atmosphere, such as Mercury, do not experience this phenomenon.

Fig. 2: The heliospheric current sheet results from the influence of the Sun’s rotating magnetic field on the plasma in the interplanetary medium (solar wind). The wavy spiral shape has been likened to a ballerina’s skirt.

As seen in Figure 2, the solar winds are often deflected from our planet by our magnetic field, resulting in the plasma being sent off to other parts of the solar system.This protects us from the harmful effects of the radiation they emit. However, if our magnetic field were to weaken or reverse, we would be far more vulnerable.

Our communications systems could be completely wiped out for days, months or potentially years, and technology would be severely affected. Transmission equipment would be ineffective, plunging us back into the dark ages.

While this seems extremely unlikely, it is still very possible, and so scientists are investing increasing amounts of time on improving our security and creating equipment to help us withstand this powerful radiation.

All we can hope is that our magnetic field protects us long enough so that we can develop this security, or we could face technological development regressing over 1000 years.

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