Space Weather: Big Solar Storms And Itty-Bitty Earth

February 21, 2011

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If a scientist tells you sunny days are ahead – duck and cover! He may be talking about space weather and the giant solar flares that fry satellites and national electrical grids! Just in case you haven’t had enough stormy weather here on Earth, astronomers are warning us to expect some major solar storms over the next few years.

 

Coming our way—more solar flares. Click to expand! Source: NASA Solar Dynamic Observatory

Here’s what they are talking about. The sun is a spinning ball of hot magnetized gas and plasma. As it spins, the magnetic force lines in the sun become tangled. After a few years, the twisted magnetic fields are so tangled that they stick out in giant loops through sun’s surface – creating dark sun spots. When the sun is covered with giant storms and sunspots—something has to give. 

For the three years following the solar peak of activity, something does. Like a rubber band stretched beyond endurance, the magnetic fields snap and break. This splatters large hunks of the solar gas and plasma out into space. We call the snapping “solar flares”. 

Imagine heating a pot of grease. Eventually, when it gets hot enough, the surface of the grease is covered with bubbles. When the bubbles burst, the grease spatters and anyone nearby can get burned. Now imagine the splatter bigger than Jupiter. 

Fortunately the Earth's magnetic field is a shield. However, some of the ionized solar particles leak through the North and South Magnetic Poles. When you look up in the sky, you can see the crackling energy as colorful “Northern Lights” or aurora. 

Scientists warn that these solar “splatters” can do enormous damage to technology. The plasma is hot (269,540˚F), and generates a strong electrical current. They are particularly dangerous to satellites, where they can fry computer chips or burn out equipment, and electrical power grids. They can create electrical surges that enter and burn out equipment and cause blackouts. 

The last time we had storms big enough to cause this damage was 1989, when a solar storm caused a major Canadian blackout in Quebec and hit several satellites. A National Science Foundation study shows a map of US electrical damage if there was another storm the size of the May 1921 super storm. Yikes!

 

Parts of the US electrical grid at risk from a May, 1921 sized solar storm. Source: NASA Science News - John Kappenmann, Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts, National Academy of Sciences, 2008. 

NASA is monitoring the sun and can warn utilities if a really big storm is coming, in time for the companies to take some protective precautions.

Still it is strange. Big solar storms can eliminate GPS, silence cell phones and cause blackouts. Without electricity, pipelines can’t deliver gas or water. If the sun has a major tantrum, we couldn’t even flush our toilets! 

Compared to that, earthbound snow flurries are enjoyable inconveniences.

Speaking of snow flurries—are you one of the people being hit by this week’s storm or one of the lucky people enjoying the safe type of “sunny” weather?

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Evelyn Browning Garriss, historical climatologist, blogger, writer for The Old Farmer's Almanac, and editor of The Browning Newsletter, has advised farmers, businesses, and investors worldwide on upcoming climate events and their economic and social impact for the past 21 years.

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Comments

Activity Levels

By myrle07

I heard we were going to have major flares in 2012. Will it be growing from now till 2013?

Activity levels

By Evelyn Browning...

We should see increasing sunspot activity up until the peak of 2013. The biggest flurry of flares are usually during the peak and the following 3 years. The 2012 super solar flare story is sort of a combined Mayan/urban legend.

question about activity levels

By Andy Fox

Hi Evelyn, Thanks for good explanation. My understanding from the Almanac weather forecast is that we're experiencing a low level of sunspot activity in the early stages of Cycle 24. Are you suggesting the flares are just more intense at times but possibly not overall? Thank you for your response.

Activity levels

By Evelyn Browning...

We have been at very low levels for several years. Indeed, 2008 was the blankest year of the Space Age. Now the sun is waking up and NASA says it will probably peak in July 2013.

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