Thursday, March 08, 2012

Solar storm a non-event so far, but still more to come

A solar storm began hitting the Earth on Thursday, one in a seeming series of storms that have been hitting the planet as the Sun begins to enter its maximal phase for solar activity. Similar warnings by astronomers about huge solar storms were issued in January and February.

The solar storm threatens our technology more than it does us, although in a sense, our reliance on that technology, including vulnerable satellite technology used for everything from GPS to satellite TV means it can affect us, as well. Earth's magnetic field protects us, in general, from the plasma and charged particles in the coronal mass ejection (CME) hitting the planet as a result of two solar flares earlier this week.

That said, airlines will likely reroute flights to avoid the North Pole, as some were earlier this year during the earlier solar storms.

Assuming the solar storm does not disrupt any GPS or communications system you personally own, your best chance to see any effects might be if you live far north enough to see the aurora borealis, which should be spectacularly enhanced by the solar storm.

So far, with the storm first hitting pre-dawn on the East Coast, effects have been minimal.   That said, among past events attributed to solar storms was a 2006 CME that interfered with GPS signals being sent to ground-based receivers. In 1989, a massive power outage in the province of Quebec, Canada was blamed on a solar storm.

The Carrington Event of 1859, which experts now believe to be a pair of intense geomagnetic storms, is perhaps the best known severe solar event. The world was much less technologically based in those days, but the event disrupted telegraph networks, and a similar magnitude disruption today could result in an economic cost in the trillions of dollars, according to a 2009 estimate by the House Homeland Security Committee.

And what are the odds of such an event? Not as low as you might think. Late last month, solar scientist Pete Riley estimated the odds to be roughly 12 percent over the next decade.

In 2013, the solar activity for this cycle is expected to peak with "a couple of CMEs a day," according to Alex Young, a solar physicist at NASA Goddard. Fortunately, they won't all erupt from the side facing Earth, but it's still expected that we will see about two CMEs a week heading in our direction.

Better stock up on magnetic field umbrellas.

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