When we think about civilization-ending events, we’re quick to jump to images of nuclear warfare, of global climate change or even of something as fantastical as an alien invasion. However, one potential world-ending event that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the solar flare.
Today, we’re looking at solar flares and considering what would happen if one were to wash over planet Earth.
What Is a Solar Flare?
A solar flare is a sudden flash of increased brightness from the sun, which is usually accompanied by a discharge of superheated plasma, radio waves and other cosmic rays.
Sufficiently large solar flares are often followed up by coronal mass ejections. These cause electromagnetic pulses that can fry electronics, making them dangerous for spacecraft and satellites.
When it comes to threats to the Earth, solar flares alone don’t have the power to cause massive damage to civilization. However, a coronal mass ejection, or CME, event could do such a thing. CME events tend to occur after solar flares and include a massive amount of electromagnetic activity, plasma and heat.
In fact, one such event narrowly missed the Earth on July 23, 2012.
Potential Damage to Electronics
In 1859, the Carrington event showed researchers on Earth what a CME can do to electronics. A massive CME impacted the Earth, causing electromagnetic waves to wash over all electronic devices and play havoc with them. Thankfully for the planet, electronics weren’t terribly commonplace in 1859, and the damage was limited mainly to telegraph stations.
Were such a storm to hit the Earth in the year 2020, however, the impact could be absolutely disastrous. Electronics the world over would, at the very least, likely lose power for the duration of the storm. Some devices could be fried altogether, wiping hard drives and ruining circuitry.
The End of the World?
Potentially catastrophic interruptions of communication technology, sudden lack of power to car engines and mass blackouts across every country on Earth would likely lead to pandemonium.
Without electricity to power servers, internet databanks would likely lose their information, and this would make it very difficult for news to spread.
People on Earth would find it difficult to communicate with one another over long distances, and it would be all but impossible for the average person to quickly find out what happened. This could result in mass panic as people could believe the world was ending. And, by believing so, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Enough panicked people looting and rioting could bring about a societal collapse.