How The Sun Could Kill Us All On 'Stuff You Should Know'

In this episode of Stuff You Should Know, Josh and Chuck talk about the tumultuous effects of space weather on Earth, including solar flares, coronal mass ejections, magnetic fields and more. You probably know already that the surface of the sun is really, really hot. In fact, it’s so hot, it’s made up of plasma – a type of matter that isn’t liquid or gas, but made of supercharged particles that create magnetic fields. And because the sun is so hot, and the particles are so supercharged, the magnetic fields that develop are a “roiling, curling, twisting….orgy of magnetism,” Josh describes. Sometimes, these fields cross one another, causing a sudden, huge release of heat and energy – like “millions of 100-ton hydrogen bombs going off all at once” – called a solar flare. And though the sun is really far away from Earth, this release of magnetism and energy can be felt on Earth – sometimes in very strange ways.

In 1859, an amateur astronomer named Richard Carrington was looking through his telescope when he saw sun spots start to brighten; he became the first person to ever record a solar flare that day, and then all the excitement seemed to die down. But then, in the wee hours of the morning, the skies put on a light show all over the Earth. Red, green, and purple auroras, normally only seen near the poles, appeared in Hawaii and the Bahamas; the sky was so bright that a brick mason crew woke up for work, only to realize it was the middle of the night. And the telegraph cables, that depended on electrical currents to send messages, became so overloaded that sparks were flying off the wires; telegraph operators even got burned, and papers caught on fire. So they unplugged the telegraph batteries – but there was so much electricity in the cables from the geomagnetic storm that they were still able to send telegrams! 

At the time, this was written off as a scientific anomaly, but in the 1970s, it became clear how much a coronal mass ejection or solar flare could wreak serious havoc on Earth. A big solar flare in 1972 knocked out long-distance telephone lines for days, and magnetic sea mines in harbors around Vietnam spontaneously exploded. Since then, we’ve only become more dependent on our electrical grid to handle our day-to-day lives, but haven't made much headway in protecting it from another solar event. Josh and Chuck mull over the amount of metal cables, pipes, and wires we’ve buried in the ground that would be affected, the satellites that would fail, big cities that would be without power for perhaps weeks at a time, and many more consequences; hear all this fascinating information and more on Stuff You Should Know.

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