Will this week's solar flare fry your electronics?

by | Feb 17, 2011 11:15 AM ET

I've seen a few articles online that suggest the X-class solar flare event could spell doom -- or at least gloom -- to those of us on Earth. In some (but not all) cases, it's due to a sensational headline. Once you get beyond the headline you realize that the writer has taken a few poetic liberties with the story, making it more dramatic. I figured I could do the same. But the short answer is that you probably won't even notice the fallout from the solar flare.

A solar flare is when the sun ejects a massive amount of light (and sometimes particles) into space. They occur when the magnetic lines that crisscross the sun's surface coil tightly before unwinding violently. Think of it like a big solar sneeze.

The light the sun emits goes across the entire spectrum. That means it ejects light we can see as well as light outside the range of human perception, including X-rays. Since X-rays are an ionizing form of radiation, meaning they can excite atoms to the point that they strip the electrons from the atoms, we consider them dangerous. Fortunately, the Earth's atmosphere and magnetosphere protect us from nearly all X-rays hitting the planet from space. People and objects in space are more vulnerable (though from what I understand, most scientists believe that a human in space would recover from exposure).

It's possible for these X-rays to hit satellites in orbit and muck them up. That's why you may have heard about the possibility of GPS systems failing in the wake of the solar flare. If the satellites aren't shielded, they could suffer damage. That might mean an interruption in service. Most of our critical satellites have shielding.

Solar flares can also disrupt radio communications and contribute to dazzling displays of the northern and southern lights (a product of electromagnetic fluctuations as atoms give off photons). In an extreme case, the solar flare can turn conductors into inducers and overload electrical systems, particularly in large systems like a power grid. But for that to happen, we'd need to be hit by a big coronal mass ejection (CME). That doesn't seem to be the case this time around.

In short, your computer, phone, mp3 player and other electronic devices should be fine. You could conceivably have some trouble with a GPS system or radio reception. Reportedly, China has experienced radio interference already. But this event doesn't look like it's going to hit us dead on, so we'll be spared the worst of it. If you want to learn more, you can check out my article "Could an extremely powerful solar flare destroy all the electronics on Earth?"

More To Explore