If a superflare, which is an explosion up to millions or even a billion times more powerful than a typical solar flare, were to happen on our sun, it would release incredible amounts of electromagnetic energy that would likely fry the world’s all-important electrical grids and send society spiraling into chaos. A large enough one could even burn up our protective ozone layer and turn all life on Earth extra-crispy.
So, what are the chances of that happening? Are we all doomed!? Well, depends on who you ask, apparently.
In a recent edition of Nature magazine, researchers from Japan and America went head to head on the likelihood of a superflare happening here in our solar system. According to a group of researchers at Kyoto University, it’s a possibility. Meanwhile, astrophysicist at Louisiana State University responded in typical scientist fashion by saying it was theoretically improbable.
At the astronomical observation center attached to Kyoto University, Professor Hiroyuki Maehara and his colleagues looked at data collected from NASA’s Kepler space telescope and observed 83,000 stars over 120 days. Over that time period, they found evidence for 365 superflares coming from Sun-like stars.
The standard theory holds that superflares are caused by the interaction between a star and a closely orbiting gas giant, a so-called “hot Jupiter”. Because Earth has no such planets, it was thought that a massive solar flare would be impossible here.
The surprising discovery that Professor Maehara and his team made is that they could find no evidence for hot Jupiters around the Sun-like stars where superflares occurred, suggesting that there must be some other cause. By extension, they argue in the Nature article, a superflare may be possible from our sun.
In a rebuttal, Brad Schaefer argued that the a superflare could not happen without an interaction with a nearby object with a strong magnetic field, even if it is not a hot Jupiter. In 2000 years of observing the sky, there has been no record of a superflare happening on our sun, Schaefer says, so it’s not likely to happen.
Kazunori Shibata, another professor on the Kyoto team, responded that before tools for astronomical observation were invented, people may not have been able to observe a superflare with the naked eye. He also stated that the team is going to begin looking into other possible origins for superflare activity.
So it looks like we’re not in any imminent danger, but you may want to put on some extra sunscreen, just in case.