The sun is having hot flashes again. NASA reported that on June 7 a “dramatic solar flare” was flung out into space.1 Such flares release particles that can collide with earth’s atmosphere and cause the phenomenon known as “northern lights.” What protects life on earth from this very harmful stream of radiation?

A flare sometimes results when superheated material in the sun gets twisted up by rotating physical and magnetic forces. And if solar activity is particularly violent, the flare can get pinched off and thrown outward in a “coronal mass ejection,” or CME.2 Photons, electrons and protons are ejected into space, often in the direction of earth.

NASA released clear images of the massive solar flare, and EarthSky reported, “The CME should deliver a glancing blow to Earth’s magnetic field during the late hours of June 8 or June 9, 2011. High-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras—the beautiful northern lights—when the CME arrives.”1 The lights are produced when solar material encounters earth’s magnetic field.

Some of the radiation released by solar flares is at the X-ray end of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is not healthy. But the magnetic field protects life on earth from this serious danger. If the field were not there, living creatures could not survive.

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