Can Solar Storms Cause Wildfires?
There’s some bizarre allegations of NASA cover-ups and misinformation flying around in the wake of the recent solar activity that impacted our atmosphere. Not only are these theories wrong, they are born from individuals who pay too much attention to Hollywood’s interpretation about how the sun should act.
First and foremost, there is no causal link between the coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that were launched from the sun over the last week and the deadly forest fires that currently consume vast swathes of land surrounding Moscow.
WATCH VIDEO: A solar eruption sends a wave of plasma hurtling towards Earth on August 1st, 2010. The event was captured by NASA satellites
One source even went so far as accusing NASA of withholding data from the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) to prevent the public from knowing about the full extent of a recent M-class solar flare that was observed on the solar surface. UPDATE: They have since admitted, unsurprisingly, they “may have jumped the gun a bit.”
Although this is currently some low-level conspiracy/confused chatter, there is a common misconception that solar storms are associated with extreme geological and atmospheric effects on Earth. The sun cannot produce solar flares or CMEs that physically burn the landscape, if it did, I doubt complex life would have had much of a chance at evolving over the last few billion years if our planet was constantly being sterilized.
BIG PIC: See the sunspot, as photographed by a photographer located in South Africa, responsible for some of the recent geomagnetic turmoil.
When the sun generates a coronal mass ejection, a huge “bubble” of magnetism is accelerated through the solar atmosphere (the corona). Trapped within the magnetic field are highly energetic particles called plasma. Using words like “huge” and “highly energetic” to describe this phenomena may give the impression we are dealing with some Death Star-like weapon, but you’ll be glad to hear that we’re not.
On Aug. 4, the CME that was launched from the sun three days earlier hit the Earth as predicted by space weather scientists; the chain of events from the solar surface to the Earth’s atmosphere had been observed, tracked and accurately forecast.
Aurorae erupted at high latitudes, providing sky watchers with a beautiful display as the “highly energetic” particles from the CME funneled into our atmosphere, slamming into atmospheric gasses, producing light.
SLIDE SHOW: Beautiful aurora photographs from around the world (but not from this latest geomagnetic storm).
Movie poster from the Nicolas Cage doomsday movie “Knowing.” And no, a flare or CME can’t char-broil the Earth.
It was one of those rare occasions when solar physicists were able to see a flaring event near the surface of the sun and follow its effects all the way into our atmosphere.
But could this solar storm (and others following it) have heated up our atmosphere so much that it created conditions conducive to forest fires in Russia? In a word: no.
But there is a scenario where the secondary effects of a solar storm could spark a fire if the conditions are already hot and dry enough.
Solar storms can pose a threat to our ever increasing dependence on sensitive electronics and communication networks. Also, through electrical currents generated in the upper atmosphere during these events, national power grids can be overloaded, leading to widespread blackouts.
Although the solar storm/wildfire link is weak — CMEs don’t alter climate systems and they don’t act like a cosmic blowtorch — there is one situation where a solar storm onset could spark fires.
On Sept. 1-2, 1859, our planet was hit by the largest recorded solar storm. The “Carrington Event” was named after English amateur astronomer Richard Carrington who observed some extreme sunspot activity erupt on the sun. A day later, aurorae erupted and could be seen as far south as Hawaii — a sign of intense magnetospheric activity.
The CME that hit Earth was obviously something unprecedented, something that hasn’t hit the Earth since. Powerful electrical currents were generated through our atmosphere, overloading telegraph networks. These basic networks overloaded, sparking and failing.
So, like lightning strikes can cause fires in dry, wooded regions, it is conceivable that a powerful CME could overload unprotected and isolated power lines, causing sparking and starting fires.
There is no indication that any recent CME — let alone the Aug. 4 solar storm — has been powerful enough to spark wildfires, the record high temperatures and sustained drought amplified by climate change has provided the ideal fire conditions. All that was needed was a spark and the crisis took care of itself.