Serious Q. on sun's energy: Weekly World News citing NOAA. Debunk?

The Weekly World News is one of my favorite publications. Every so often, just to shake things up a bit, they include things that are, surprisingly, probably true. “Boy Has 11 Sisters!”, “Miracle Baby Delivered on Back of Snowmobile!”, stuff like that. But in the February 13, 2001 issue, in between “The Day, Hour, and Minute Jesus Will Return To Earth!” and “Computers Are Turning Our Kids Into Hunchbacks!”, they have “Fascinating Facts About Our Friend, the Sun!” And bless my soul if they don’t have the audacity, the chutzpah, to quote no less an authority than the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And just to really fake us out, some of it actually sounds like it might be true–fabulous factoids about how much energy the Sun produces, “enough for the next 9 million years!” and “Explosions on the Sun eject X-rays!” and “A single mega-flare explodes with the energy of at least a million 100 megaton hydrogen bombs!”

However, some of the factoids are more like the Weekly World News we’ve all grown to know and love. Hmm. What I wanna know is, how far off base are they? I kinda resent NOAA being dragged into this, you know? What did they ever do to deserve being lumped in with “Georgia Swamp Monster Kills Kids!” and “New Jersey Woman Sent Back In Time To Days Of Ancient Rome!”
[li]If the sun stopped producing new energy today, the effects wouldn’t be felt on Earth for some 50 million years. That’s because the sun is so huge and its core so dense that it takes about that long for new energy produced at the center to circulate to the surface.[/li]
[li]In 1989 a severe solar storm pulse struck Earth and completely knocked out the Canadian as well as part of the North American electrical grid, leaving more than 8 million people without power for days.[/li]
[li]This October 1989 solar storm produced radiation of such intensity it would have killed an astronaut on the moon, wearing only a space suit and caught in the brunt of the storm.[/li]
[li]That same storm actually caused the coils in a transformer station in Salem, N.J. to melt and catch fire, causing a regional blackout.[/li]
[li]In the biggest and rarest solar storms, classified as “S5”, passengers in high-flying commercial airplanes would get a dose of harmful radiation equivalent to 100 chest X-rays.[/li]
[li]Electromagnetic energy from the sun can send huge waves of electrical energy surging along power lines, shorting circuits and burning out equipment.[/li][/list=1]
My guess is that 1 and 6 are deliberate misinterpretations of real science facts (#1 especially–huh? If the Sun went out tomorrow, we wouldn’t notice for 50 million years?), that 2 and 4 are an obvious total crock, that 5 is simply an exaggeration of a real science fact, and that 3 is possibly true.

From the NOAA web site

Gasp! Anybody that challenges the Weekly World News on this site is going to be in for the fight of their life with me. A total crock indeed!

Again from the NOAA

Bolding mine, so they’re sort of right with this one.

As to point (1)–the energy from the fusion reactions at the Sun’s core may take tens of millions of years to work its way to the surface, but if the fusion reactions at the Sun’s core just stopped tomorrow, wouldn’t the Sun begin imploding immediately?

Point 1 is tricky, because in order to answer what would happen if the Sun “turned off”, you have to posit a mechanism by which it could turn off, and there’s none such known. It does, however, take a photon produced in the core an average of about a million years to reach the surface, and due to the nature of random-walk processes, it could conceivably take much longer, so the 50 million years quoted probably isn’t too far out. It’s probably a misunderstanding by the WWN writer, not an outright lie.

As for the rest, I know for a fact that 2, 5, and 6 are true (except 2 is slightly exaggerated; it was just Quebec and parts of the U. S. northeast, not all of Canada), and while I’ve never heard 3 or 4, they’re not unreasonable.

Ducky, with regards to number 4:

*Originally posted by Stupendous man *

It was a surge, caused by the dropping out of the load in the region (Canada and NE US). Many bad things happen to the electrical system and power plants when their load is suddenly and dramatically increased or decreased. And this can lead to overheating transformers, electric lines melting, fires, etc.

When I was at the power plant in Utah a few weeks ago, they described a “close call” they had when a power line between them and California melted, causing their turbine/generator to start to overspin. A very quick and experienced operator managed to keep the unit online, and prevent a “trip”, which would have blacked or browned out a large region of Utah.

I have this same 1 million year term on my site (, but it’s actually incorrect, I believe. A 1997 paper by Fiorentini and Ricci (Comm. Mod. Phys. E, 1 (1999) 49) gives a timescale of about 40,000 years for a photon to diffuse out. The 1 million year figure ingnores convection; but the convecting gases inside the Sun bring the material up pretty quickly.

Of course, it’s not really true anyway. The photon that emerges isn’t the same one created! But that’s okay, we can pretend for the sake of argument. :wink:

I will be fixing that part of my website when I can confirm all this.

Well, Jeezum Crow, stap my vitals, and holy moly, Batman!! :eek: The Weekly World News printed something that was not only true, but actually verifiable?! [insert emoticon for slack-jawed amazement]

Pardon me while I step out of the room for a paradigm shift…

Um, does this mean that Jesus really IS coming back in 2006?


I had always understood that convection was insignificant in most of a star’s interior, but I’ll have to ask arong among some of the solar physicists here. I’ll try to report back tomorrow on what I find out.

Eh, all bosons look alike, anyway.

That is correct - convection is significant only in the, well, the convection zone, which is the outer layer of the sun. Some young stars are thought to be fully convective, but not our sun.

Still, if the energy production stopped at the core of the sun, the pressure would immediately decrease, and the effect of that would propagate at the speed of sound, which is pretty high. I don’t have the numbers with me but I think it would only take a matter of days.

By the way, the reason solar storms are dangerous to electrical power grids is that they induce extremely low frequency current. What you have is a very slow change of magnetic field occuring over a loop of wire hundreds of miles in diameter. This creates an extremely high current of almost DC electricity, which transformers are not designed to withstand.