March 2018 has been a particularly active month for the sun

Feeling stressed out, anxious, and sleep-deprived? Blame it on the sun.

According to Space Weather Live, a number of days throughout the month of March have experienced above average solar activity. This activity includes solar flares, coronal holes, and coronal mass ejections. However, of all the solar phenomena that humans need to worry about, coronal mass ejections are by far the most important.

According to NASA, coronal mass ejections are “balloon-shaped bursts of solar wind rising above the solar corona [the outermost gaseous exterior of the sun], expanding as they climb. Solar plasma is heated to tens of millions of degrees, and electrons, protons, and heavy nuclei are accelerated to near the speed of light.” All of these charged particles regularly make contact with the Earth. Fortunately for all us living things, Earth’s magnetic field prevents almost all of these particles from reaching the surface. However, during particularly powerful geomagnetic storms, some of these particles do make contact with Earth’s surface and consequently wreak havoc on GPS. But what effect does all this solar activity have on humans?

A literature review conducted by James Close in Oxford, UK, concluded that geomagnetic storms may have a more profound effect on humans than what was previously thought. The research suggests that humans, like many other animals, have internal biological mechanisms that are sensitive to magnetic fields. A number of animals, such as bees and birds, for example, use their ability to detect magnetic fields in order to navigate. The research suggests that greater than average solar activity, and the charged particles such activity produces, can have deleterious effects on our health.

“…of all the solar phenomena that humans need to worry about, coronal mass ejections are by far the most important.”

Close’s study looked at literature from a number of sources which showed correlations between geomagnetic activity and changes in human health. According to Close, “One of the few large literature reviews on [geomagnetic storms] made the definite conclusion that [geomagnetic activity] has an effect on human [cardiovascular] health, and the less certain conclusion that there may be an association between [geomagnetic activity] and admissions for mental illness.” Close argues that adverse effects on mental health are partly due to changes in circadian rhythm—geomagnetic storms are thought to interfere with healthy melatonin production, which in turn can affect our sleep cycles. And, as I am sure any student can testify, lack of sleep can make even the simplest tasks seem impossible.

However, it is important to question the extent to which geomagnetic activity can significantly affect our mental health. For example, how much of your sleeplessness and anxiety is caused by a combination of overworking and over-caffeinating yourself and how much of it is caused by solar activity? Without a doubt, geomagnetic storms affect human health—many studies have confirmed this. But, perhaps we should be wary of ignoring other, and possibly more significant, factors that negatively affect our health in lieu of an easy scapegoat—the sun.