March 9, 2012
Solar Storm Threat Appears To Have Passed
Two recent Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) -- massive bursts of solar wind produced by the Sun -- appear to have caused little or no damage to electrical systems, according to scientists.The CMEs were caught by NASA as they took off from the Sun, traveling faster than 1,300 miles per second. The first wave hit yesterday morning, March 8. The second hit late last night into early this morning.
Joseph Kunches, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told the Associated Press (AP) on March 7 that the flares were headed straight for us.
Today, however, he was less concerned. “The freight train has gone by, and is still going by, and now we´re just watching for how this is all going to shake out,” he told BBC News. The last of the charged particles were expected to pass Earth this morning.
There were fears that this CME event would wreak havoc on satellites and electrical systems on Earth. But Kunches said it was “not a terribly strong event.”
Some precautionary measurements were taken on Wednesday and Thursday, such as re-routing air traffic away from the polar regions. But all in all, the event was fairly mundane.
“This week´s solar storms have been stronger than those of recent years but moderate when viewed over the longer term,” Paul Cannon, director of the Poynting Institute at the University of Birmingham, told BBC News.
Rod Steenburgh, space weather forecaster at NOAA´s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, said there haven´t been any reports from electrical system operators yet. “But sometimes they don´t come in until after the storm,” he told AP's Seth Borenstein.
Steenburgh said the storm reached a moderate level late Thursday, before going to a strong level early Friday. But, he explained, people have no reason to fear these types of events; they only pose a threat to technology, not humans.
This week´s storms had the potential to cause voltage systems to go out of whack and perhaps trigger false alarms in protection devices, as well as increase drag on satellites and affect their orientation.
While some experts thought the threat from the solar storm would be over on Thursday, NOAA maintained that the storm´s effects would most likely last into today.
And just because this event passed without much incidence, it is certain that our electrical systems and satellites are nowhere in the clear.
Space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock warned Hannah Furness of The Telegraph that Britain could be facing up to 18 months of potentially disrupted power grids, satellites and flights during a “few rough years of space weather.” She said there could be another “five or six” major incidents in the coming months, where the sun emits massive amounts of matter.
That warning comes as the Sun enters the most active phase of its 11-year cycle, which is due to peak in 2013 or 2014.
The Sun´s 11-year cycle has a period of high and activity and a period of low activity. “And we´re just ramping up now to a period of high activity,” said Aderin-Pocock. “Although this storm hasn´t caused any damage, there are more to come and they could be more powerful.”
“This is a large amount of matter being emitted from the surface of the sun. It could be matter the size of the earth, but not as solid,” she added. “It can go in a number of different directions. If it heads towards the Earth, these charged particles can give us the Northern Lights. But they can also take out transformers, because you have a surge of current. Satellites are also very vulnerable and can be taken out, so your GPS signal can go down.”
The Earth´s magnetic field is constantly being bombarded with high-energy particles from the Sun and elsewhere in the solar system, but is strong enough to reflect most of the matter coming our way. However, solar storms that produce CMEs can disrupt the magnetic field enough to affect the Earth´s surface -- causing spikes in power grids or disrupting GPS systems.
Among the disturbances that CMEs produce are the more benign-in-nature Northern Lights that become visible at lower latitudes. But it is often unclear just how spectacular the effects will be on Earth. It all depends on the magnetic alignment of the material within the CME, which is difficult to predict.
Dr. David Kerridge, director of geoscience research at the British Geological Survey, said the storm for the most part has left us unscathed, but “part of the Sun where this came from is still active,” he explained to BBC News. “It´s a 27-day cycle and we´re right in the middle of it, so it is coming straight at us and will be for a few days yet. We could see more material.”
This CME event “is the largest for several years, but it is not in the most severe class. We may expect more storms of this kind and perhaps much more severe ones in the next year or so as we approach solar maximum,” said Dr. Craig Underwood in a statement to BBC and The Telegraph. “Such events act as a wake-up call as to how our modern western lifestyles are utterly dependent on space technology and national power grid infrastructure.”
Most of these storms are benign, he said, but they can also be quite disruptive.
In 1972, a geomagnetic storm provoked by a solar flare knocked out long-distance telephone communications across Illinois. And a 1989 storm plunged six million people into darkness across Quebec.
Storms like these start with sun spots. First, there is an initial solar flare of subatomic particles that resembles a filament coming out of the sun. That part reaches Earth in just a few minutes after the initial burst, bringing radio and radiation disturbances. Next comes the coronal mass ejection, which looks like a growing bubble and takes a couple days to reach Earth.
These solar storms can bring additional radiation around the north and south polar regions -- a risk that forces air traffic controllers to reroute their flights. Thursday´s storm forced Delta and United Airlines to reroute 11 flights to Asia on a more southern trajectory rather than their more common path over the Arctic. And three American Airlines flights flew lower than normal over the northernmost parts of their routes to Japan and China.
However, this week´s solar storms did not force astronauts aboard the International Space Station to take any extra precautions, according to NASA spokesman Rob Navias.
NASA is rating the current storm at an S# on a scale that ranges up to S5. The last large solar flare recorded was on August 9, 2011. It was measured as an X6.9 flare. The larger of the two that took place this week was measured at X5.4.
Image Caption: Artist illustration of events on the sun changing the conditions in Near-Earth space. Credit: NASA
On the Net:
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- Poynting Institute at the University of Birmingham
- Space Weather Prediction Center
- British Geological Survey