solar flare
Huge solar flare captured by NasaNasa

A giant solar flare has the potential to wipe out modern means of communication on Earth, knocking out satellites and electricity through a huge cloud of charged particles.

According to Adrian Melott, a physicist from the University of Kansas, if a massive solar flare the same size as one that hit Earth in 1859 reached our planet today, the consequences would be devastating.

A report in the Kansas City Star said an increasing number of scientists and politicians are concerned about this scenario, noting that while it would not be a doomsday situation, life would revert to times before electricity for an unknown length of time – potentially years.

The 1859 solar flare fried telegraph lines, but there was little impact on society. Now, with the society increasingly reliant on the digital world, the consequences would be much more severe.

Astrophysicist David Hathaway from Nasa's Marshall Space Flight Centre said: "It's happened before, as recently as 1989. That geomagnetic storm took out a big transformer in New Jersey."

Earlier this week, the sun issued a huge solar flare, with Nasa capturing footage of the burst. It was classified as a X4.9-class flare. "X-class denotes the most intense flares, while the number provides more information about its strength. An X2 is twice as intense as an X1, an X3 is three times as intense, etc," Nasa scientists explained.

Discussing the possibility of a solar flare disrupting Earth, Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Sceptical Inquirer magazine, said humans are intrinsically fascinated with disaster, but that there is "some legitimate scientific concern about this".

Scientists say the sun would have to issue a coronal mass ejection at the right moment for it to reach our planet and shake its magnetic field. The risk of a solar flare similar to the 1859 event happening in the next decade is around 6%, the website claims.

However, others are less convinced of the risk of a return to the dark ages. Jeffrey Lewis of the Monterey Institute of International Studies told the Los Angeles Times: "People are saying these outlandish things that are not related to data. You get sceptical of them really quick."