Something New Under the Sun

Scientists are probing deep beneath the surface of our nearest star to calculate its profound effect on Earth

When a coronal mass ejection reaches Earth, solar particles stream along magnetic field lines, energize gases in the atmosphere and shine as norther lights. (Federico Buchbinder)
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Even with those measures, an event as severe as the solar storms of 1859 or 1921 would wreak havoc, says solar and space physicist Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado, lead author of the 2008 National Research Council report. People grow more dependent on commu­nications technology by the year, Baker says, making us ever more vulnerable to electromagnetic chaos. “Those [severe] events probably occur every decade,” he says. “It’s just a question of time before one of them hits us.”

Baker and his colleagues have urged NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, to develop a system of space-weather warning satellites. Today the only instrument that can determine the direction of the magnetic field inside an approaching coronal mass ejection—a critical factor for determining how violently it will interact with Earth—is on a 13-year-old satellite that has no near-term replacement.

“The Sun is a highly variable star,” Baker warns. “We live in its outer atmosphere, and the cyber-electric cocoon that surrounds Earth is subject to its whims. We’d better come to terms with that.”

Robert Irion directs the science writing program at the University of California at Santa Cruz.


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