Aside from water, one other important factor that makes life on our planet possible is the existence of our magnetosphere — that big magnetic field surrounding our planet, protecting us from deadly radiation, solar winds and all other harsh elements that the universe is capable of throwing at us.
And so we go about our daily lives, not having to worry about cosmic radiation because there’s a gigantic forcefield protecting us. But then we find out that our protective shield has been broken. Should we be worried? Not anymore because the threat is over. The bad news is, the first time is not likely going to be the last time.
On June 22, 2015, the GRAPES-3 muon telescope located in the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Ooty, India recorded an enormous burst of galactic cosmic rays that bombarded the Earth’s magnetic field for around 2 hours. The burst resulted from a giant solar flare that struck our planet at the blazing speed of 2.5 million kph. It caused radio signal blackouts in many South and North American countries. It also produced an unexpected aurora borealis.
Generally speaking, those temporary disturbances should not be so alarming. But now that the cause of those incidents has been discovered, it’s a different and more serious story.
Apparently, due to the intensity of the radiation emitted during that 2-hour cosmic ray bombardment, our magnetosphere cracked and shrunk from 11 times to 4 times the radius of our planet. This shrinking temporarily allowed low energy cosmic ray particles to get through our atmosphere, triggering a severe geomagnetic storm that caused those signal blackouts and the supercharged aurora borealis.
Recently revealed in a report published in Physical Review Letters, these findings were gathered after simulations were conducted by researchers in the Tata Institute’s Cosmic Ray Laboratory. Supposedly, the ability of our magnetic field to deflect harmful cosmic rays can be weakened by geomagnetic storms that open temporary cracks and let radiation get through. And solar magma that gets magnetized can stretch the shield at the poles, reducing its ability to repel charged particles.
If you find it hard to imagine, there’s a film in 2003 which showed what can happen when the Earth’s magnetic field is breached. Electrical storms, nonstop bombardment of solar flares, super-strong earthquakes. It’s a bleak scenario and it might be closer to reality than we think.
Knowing that our magnetic field is not as tough as we think is a bit disturbing. The good news is, we have the technology and many brilliant minds to help us better understand the possible effects and impact of past, present and future cosmic events. With this understanding, there’s some comfort in the thought that we at least have a better fighting chance to prepare for what might be coming.