A massive burst of electromagnetic radiation erupts from the surface of the sun, sending X-rays, gamma rays, protons and electrons on a collision course with Earth. The cosmic barrage hits the upper atmosphere and affects everything from GPS systems to the power grid.
It isn’t the plot of the next summer blockbuster — it’s a description of what happens when our planet winds up in the crosshairs of a solar flare. And since the current 11-year cycle of solar flare activity appears to be approaching its peak, this scenario has been playing itself out more often than usual.
Before you start building your doomsday bunker, however, here are some reassuring facts to keep in mind:
- Most solar flares aren’t large enough to cause major disruptions.
- The planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field cushion the blow from solar flares.
- A lot of these solar flares miss the Earth entirely or just strike a glancing blow.
There’s also good news for cellphone users and wireless internet customers. Thanks to the protection of the atmosphere and magnetic field, ground-based communication systems generally aren’t affected by solar flares. So if you get your internet service through a provider that uses a 4G network — like CLEAR, which developed the first 4G network in America — the chances of the sun’s shenanigans having a severe effect on your online activities are pretty remote.
In fact, members of the scientific community believe that the probability of a “killer” solar flare is also unlikely. Such an event would involve a very specific set of circumstances — like a particular alignment of the earth’s and the sun’s magnetic fields — coinciding with an unusually large solar flare.
In other words, the perfect solar storm.
An article on PCMag.com quoted Michael Hesse, chief of NASA’s Space Weather Laboratory at the Goddard Space Flight Center: “The worst-case scenario is an extreme event,” Hesse said.
“This is not something we expect to happen tomorrow,” he added.
All in all, it sounds like wireless internet customers — not to mention the rest of the planet —have reason to keep a sunny outlook.