Our Transformers Don't Like Superflares!

Our sun sends us life-giving photons but its usually benign nature can change to suddenly send intense bursts of radiation and high energy particles towards us. Were we to transform its regular radiation into audiowaves it might sound as if its constantly screeching at us!

In 1859 the Carrington Event [named for English astronomer Richard Carrington, who spotted it by chance while observing the sun] was a massive solar event that disrupted early telegraph communication. A similar or more energetic event today, or what is termed a superflare (and hence the design image), would have a much greater impact likely to burn out transformers, crash power grids along with our computer networks and disrupt satellite services (although with sufficient warning some hardened satellites might be saved).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has formalized the reporting of space weather and forecasting here measuring the status and forecasting R (Radio Blackouts), S (Solar Radiation Storms) and G (Geomagnetic Storms) arising from solar activity. NASA useful information piece on solar flares describes the severity range from A – X class flares that are often associated with coronal mass ejections (CMEs). The largest recent flare was in 2003 when the sensors detecting it cut out at X28 (the Carrington Event was estimated to have an estimated soft X-ray peak of X45).

The SOHO mission, the Solar Dynamic Observatory, and now NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, ESA’s Solar Orbiter, SMILE mission, and the amazing Daniel K Inouye Solar Telescope on Hawaii have and will help improve our understanding of the sun. For instance we are getting closer to understanding the reasons for the sun’s corona being hotter than the sun’s surface.

Various studies have examined evidence of solar flare and other cosmic events impacting the Earth’s biosphere to help us understand the frequency of severe events and inform a better risk management strategy. Recent research into carbon-14 in tree rings could also be interpreted as suggesting some sort of astrophysical storms over multiple years when either the Earth’s magnetic field is weaker and / or the sun is going through a solar minimum reducing the protective effect of the Earth and sun’s magnetic fields and / or the heliosphere respectively from cosmic rays.

Our sun and all the other celestial stars are marvelous. With a severe event perhaps occurring once every 1,000 years that’s about 1% each decade. Not something we need to lose sleep over. However just as we protect ourselves from UV to reduce skin damage and mitigate cancer risk we should prepare contingency plans to mitigate against the risks of another Carrington-style Event, superflare or other damaging cosmic event that will occur sometime…soon?

[Also see our design relating to the debate between helioseismologists vs spectroscopists about the sun’s metallicity and its importance to our analysis of all the stars we see.)

Links to some interesting podcasts and books about our sun, coronal mass ejections and solar flares, nanoflares, and the nicely named ‘campfires’ are provided below:

Some useful links are provided below:


Mysterious Cosmic Radiation Storms Targeting the EarthSpace Time With Stuart Gary (The design idea was initially prompted by this episode)

How Would A Large Solar Flare Effect My Electronics - Techstuff

In Our Time – The Sun

The Life of The Sun Fraser Cain’s Astronomy Cast

The Sun – The Infinite Monkey Cage

What Happens Inside Our Sun with Professor Lucie Green

The Smile Mission (to investigate the solar wind) – The Science Show

Solar Orbiter hit by CME



Stuart Clark, The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began (Princeton University Press, 2009)


Leon Golub & Jay M. Pasachoff, Nearest Star: The Surprising Science of Our Sun (Cambridge University Press, 2014)


Professor Lucie Green, Fifteen Million Degrees: A Journey To The Center of the Sun



Hinode Science Center - NAOJ (hinode.nao.ac.jp)