NASA has shared a spectacular picture of the Northern Lights adorning the sky in Iceland – but warned that the “beauty and the beast” aurora could wreak havoc here on Earth.
The image was captured by astronomer Juan Carlos Casado in 2016, and selected as NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day on Sunday.
It shows the aurora borealis over Thingvallavatn Lake in Iceland – a lake that partly fills a fault that divides Earth’s large Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.
“Admire the beauty but fear the beast,” wrote Casado, in his picture caption.
“The beauty is the aurora overhead, here taking the form of great green spiral, seen between picturesque clouds with the bright Moon to the side and stars in the background.
“The beast is the wave of charged particles that creates the aurora but might, one day, impair civilization.”
Aurora are the result of collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun and particles in the Earth’s atmosphere.
While they are usually harmless, scientists warn that a particularly strong solar flare could one day release a pulse of charged particles capable of bringing down Earth’s communication networks.
This happened once before in 1859, when a pulse of charged particles associated with a solar flare bombarded Earth’s magnetosphere, creating a so-called “Carrington Event”.
As a result, the Earth’s magnetic field was compressed so violently that giant currents were created in telegraph wires, causing wires to spark and giving telegraph operators shocks.
Since then, mankind’s reliance on electronic communications has increased dramatically.
Measures have been put in place to protect Earth against the effects of solar flares, but Casado warns that, if a similar large-scale event was to occur today, it could wreak havoc.
“Speculation holds that damage might occur to global power grids and electronics on a scale never yet experienced,” he said.