Solar Flares and You
by Christina Carson
Far from this blue planet we call home, our sun holds its position like a great Mother overseeing her offspring. The mystery and magic of the whole cosmic affair does not elude even those whose job it is to explain how large bodies can appear to hang in alleged nothingness. Our sun is a sustainer of life on our planet, but she is as fierce as she is enigmatic. Occasionally, she ejects from her seething mass a brief eruption of high-energy radiation in the form of solar flares as well as the more intense coronal mass ejections (CMEs). These massive bursts of solar wind carrying the particles from these eruptions can travel to earth in 3-5 days and set up what we call electromagnetic storms. They affect us, indeed they do. Power outages, radio and GPS transmission interference and accelerated decay of low-orbiting satellites are evidence of their technological impact on human beings. Yet though these storms create a good bit of mischief, they also enhance one of the most surreal experiences found in the natural world.
When the sun begins flinging charged particles into space like a flamingo dancer throwing scarfs, those who live in the upper latitudes see the most dramatic light show on earth. The auroras at either pole fill the night sky with wavy curtains of neon, a cosmic whimsy of startling beauty. Who would imagine that the flaming winds of a molten sun would transmute themselves on earth into sheets of changing colors spread across the darkness, unfurling as if caught in a gentle breeze?
It was October of 2002. We had just returned from picking up our folbot kayaks and were determined to be in them before the day’s end. Even though it was late when we arrived at the lakeside cabin we’d reserved for this moment, undaunted, we put them together and slipped them onto Lake Guntersville. It was well after 10:00 PM. To say it was dark out on the water would be an understatement of some magnitude. But that darkness caused us to notice a diffuse red glow in the northern sky. At first we thought it was a large fire’s glow, but as it grew in intensity, we thought perhaps a forest fire. Slowly it took a shape which struck a familiar chord in me. I yelled to Bert since I couldn’t see him, “Darlin’, that’s the aurora, all the way down here in Alabama, the Northern Lights… my god.” A flood of memories of my Canadian home—sweet, distant and wild—came to me, woven through with stories that filled them. The Northern Lights had again lit up my life.
Stop for a moment and consider: the caprice of our sun 93 million miles away, while perhaps darkening some part of the world, lit up ours in a show of boggling beauty. Two crazy people kayaking in the pitch dark see a sight they wouldn’t have been able to share otherwise. Is this not an amazing universe? Are we perhaps interconnected with the rest of the natural world to a degree we can hardly imagine? Were we to sense that interconnectedness more deeply, would we stop tripping over our disappointments and embrace more passionately this extraordinary opportunity called life on earth?
Every day, we need to feed our spirit along with our body.
One spoonful of awe is all it takes.