While three hurricanes swirled in the Caribbean and Atlantic Oceans on September 6, 2017, the sun blasted off a powerful flare of energy, which soon smacked into Earth and severed radio communications across half the planet for hours.
Just four days later, another solar flare — an intense burst of radiation from the sun — hit Earth and again disrupted communications, as major storms continued to churn toward land.
This confluence of tempestuous weather both on Earth and in space was recently described by scientists in the journal Space Weather, the research led by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers.
“Space weather and Earth weather aligned to heighten an already tense situation in the Caribbean,” said NOAA’s Rob Redmon in a statement.
Fortunately, many governments no longer rely strictly on radio to communicate over long distances, though aviation and marine emergency services still employ high-frequency radio, which bounces radio waves across Earth’s high atmosphere, allowing contact over long distances.
“You can hear a solar flare on the air as it’s taking place. It’s like hearing bacon fry in a pan, it just all of a sudden gets real staticky and then it’s like someone just turns the light completely off, you don’t hear anything,” Bobby Graves, a radio operator for Hurricane Watch Net which uses radio during hurricanes,” said in a statement.
When the radiation from strong solar flares smacks the Earth, it hits an energetic layer of the atmosphere called the ionosphere, causing it to absorb — and thus impair — long distance radio waves.
“And that’s what happened this last year on two occasions,” noted Graves. “We had to wait ‘til the power of those solar flares weakened so that our signals could actually bounce back off the atmosphere. It was a helpless situation.”
The first of the two flares, on September 6, arrived during a remarkably bad time, as Hurricane Irma — a highest rated Category 5 storm — was in the process of leveling the island of Barbuda. The massive storm would later make landfall in Florida.
NASA is still intensively studying the sun, to improve the space agency’s understanding of when unpredictable events, like solar flares, might pose a harm to Earth. Worse yet are Corneal Mass Ejections, or CMEs, which are explosions of billions of tons of solar matter hurled into space. Events like these pose serious threats to our modern telecommunication and electrical grids — consequences far worse than temporary radio blackouts.
In 1859, a CME collided with Earth, and set telegraph equipment on fire.
To improve humanity’s understanding of our fickle star, in early August NASA will send the heavily-fortified Parker Solar Probe into the sun’s scorching outer atmosphere, to better learn how the sun works — and when it might blast powerful surges of energy into space.