September 16, 2011
Artist renditions of the Van Allen Radiation Belt, a tube of charged particles (plasma) that surrounds the planet and is kept in place by Earth’s magnetic field.
Many of the orbiting satellites that are crucial to the economy and modern life could be knocked silent for up to a decade if the sun were to spew massive amounts of charged particles toward Earth, as it has in the past.
Geophysicist Yuri Shprits, of the University of California, Los Angeles, made that warning after studying how such large solar storms would affect the protective radiation belts around Earth.
Writing in the journal Space Weather, he said that Earth’s natural buffers against intense solar radiation, the Van Allen Radiation Belts, could be virtually obliterated for a decade during a solar superstorm.
Such an event happened in 1859, when radiation reached Earth’s surface and caused parts of the then-fledgling telegraphic network to spark, and even function once batteries were removed.
Such a storm today could drastically shorten the life of most low-earth-orbit satellites used for communication and navigation, Shprits warns.
And it could take up to 10 years for the planet’s protective layers to heal to the point unshielded satellites, and even electronics on Earth, would no longer be in danger.