December 29, 2010

2011 Will Be Filled With Plenty Of Solar Weather

2011 could bring more space weather as the Sun pulls out of a trough of low activity and heads into a long-awaited and possibly destructive period of turbulence.

Many people may be surprised to find out that the Sun goes through moments of calm and tempest.

However, two centuries of observation have revealed that our star follows an 11-year cycle of behavior.

The latest cycle started in 1996 for reasons that are unclear, but it has taken longer than expected to end.

Experts say that there are more and more signs that the Sun is shaking off its torpor and building towards "Solar Max," or the cycle's climax.

"The latest prediction looks at around midway 2013 as being the maximum phase of the solar cycle," Joe Kunches of the Space Weather Prediction Center is quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.

However, he cautioned that there is a prolonged period of high activity, "more like a season, lasting about two and a half years."

The Sun can bring out tides of electromagnetic radiation and charged matter known as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs.

This shock wave may take several days before reaching Earth, but it will compress the planet's protective magnetic field and release energy visible in high latitudes as shimmering auroras once it arrives.

However, CMEs are not just pretty events.

They unleash static discharges and geomagnetic storms that can disrupt or even knock out the electronics our Internet-based society rely on.

Solar flares, which are eruptions of super-charged protons, can reach Earth in just minutes.

Telecommunication satellites in geostationary orbit will take the brute force of the solar weather, including GPS satellites orbiting at an altitude of 22,500 miles above Earth.

Discharges of static electricity inflicted a five-month, $50 million outage of a Canadian telecoms satellite in January 1994.

Intelsat lost Galaxy 15 in April 2010 after the link to ground control was knocked out apparently by solar activity.

"These are the two outright breakdowns that we all think about," Philippe Calvel, an engineer with the French firm Thales, told AFP. "Both were caused by CMEs."

In 2005, X-rays from a solar storm disrupted satellite-to-ground communications and GPS signals for 10 minutes.

Thierry Duhamel of satellite maker Astrium told teh news agency that satellite designers opt for robust, tried-and-tested components and shielding, even if this makes the equipment heavier and bulkier and thus costlier to launch.

Power lines, data connections and even oil and gas pipelines are potentially vulnerable on Earth.

In 1859, the biggest CME ever observed unleashed red, purple and green auroras even in tropical latitudes.

The telegraph-technology went crazy as geomagnetically-induced currents in the wires that shocked telegraph operators and even set the telegraph paper on fire.

A smaller flare in 1989 knocked out power from Canada's Hydro Quebec generator, inflicting a nine-hour blackout for six million people.

U.S. space weather experts warned in 2008 that a major geomagnetic storm would dwarf the costs brought by the 2005 Hurricane Katrina.

The experts said recurrence of a 1921 event today would fry 350 major transformers, leaving over 130 million people without power.  They said at the event hosted by the National Academy of Sciences that a bigger storm could cost between a trillion and two trillion dollars in the first year.

"I think there is some hyperbole about the draconian effects," said Kunches.

"On the other hand, there's a lot we don't know about the Sun. Even in the supposedly declining, or quiet phase, you can have magnetic fields on the Sun that get very concentrated and energized for a time, and you can get, out of the blue, eruptive activity that is atypical. In short, we have a variable star."


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