By Gary Orlando
Most people know what a solar flare is, but few know about a very rare and yet very powerful type of solar flare - a "super solar flare." A super solar flare is about as powerful as the nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NEMP) that occurs when a nuclear device that is detonated. A super solar flare or an NEMP could seriously set the world back many, many years as far as technology is concerned. Our earth's atmosphere protects us and our equipment from regular solar flares, but can be easily penetrated by a super solar flare. Which could damage everything from our modern electronics to the power grid.
The phenomenon of destruction from an NEMP was originally documented during World War II when nuclear bombs were new and undergoing testing and detonation. The two phenomena - an NEMP and a super solar flare - are similar in that they both emit high concentrations of electromagnetic waves that can cause considerable damage to our environment. But there are two important differences. Usually super solar flares don't affect biological life unless it is highly concentrated, or unless that biological life is too close to conducting surfaces such as wires and metal structures. Unlike a super solar flare, the primary effect of a nuclear detonation is radiation, which is meant to destroy biological life.
NASA recently released a report detailing a study by The National Academy of Sciences entitled, "Severe Space Weather Events - Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts." NASA's website contains a good synopsis of the findings of this study, which they funded. Our military and our government are very concerned about understanding these events, because the government needs to be able to operate if such a scenario should happen. The truth is, very little is known about the effects that a super solar flare or an NEMP attack might have on modern electronics and electrical systems. Speculation abounds, particularly in Internet forums, but the actual effects have never been experienced.
A super solar flare is many thousands of times more powerful than a regular solar flare, just as modern nuclear warheads are many thousands of times more powerful than the ones used for initial testing during World War II. Also keep in mind that if an NEMP should happen there will be almost no advance warning, maybe a couple of seconds to a minute or two, and that's it. By contrast, in terms of a super solar flare, there are dozens of satellites in orbit around the earth that monitor solar output and many other details, including solar flare activity. Because it takes about 7½ minutes for light or solar activity to reach the earth from the sun, it is possible that we could get a little advance warning before a super solar flare hits. Just a little.
There is plenty of information on the Internet right now about super solar flares and NEMPs, some good and some not so good. Understand that most of the information available about how to mitigate damages or protect equipment is derived from mathematics, and is still only theory. Even though the math has been proven in other circumstances and situations, no one has actually tested it with a super solar flare or NEMP. And you can only do so much to "harden" your environment before your preparations become too much of a hassle and interfere with everyday living.
However, the popular belief is that you can construct a "Faraday cage" and put whatever you want protected inside of it, and it will be protected - such as radios, a small television, and communication equipment. A Faraday cage is nothing more than a metal box or mesh wire screen where all ends meet each other to form a tight metallic seal. Some theorize that even chicken wire with its very large open weave would work just as well as a solid metal box. Nothing you put inside the box should come in contact with the box itself or the mesh, and no metal wires should be run in or out of the box. A quick and easy approach would be to put what you want protected in a cardboard or wooden box and then wrap it with aluminum foil. Some people have lined rooms with chicken wire and are very careful about what goes into the room. Some say an airplane is a perfect example of a well-constructed Faraday box because of the high amount of static electricity generated on the exterior "skin," which is made of aluminum. Aircraft are actually struck by lightning fairly regularly, and nothing inside gets damaged.
There was a minor solar flare in the fall of 2005 that resulted in all GPS signals on one side of the Earth being noticeably degraded. When those results are scaled up to the power of the super solar flares that many people are expecting to happen sometime in the next few years, researchers say there could be massive outages experienced in GPS receivers located on the daylight side of the planet.
This is just a quick down and dirty primer to provide a little information and spark your interest in learning more. Now it is up to you to do a little research on your own, and devise a plan to protect yourself and your equipment should these events take place.