Solar storm, radiation, sunspots, flares, CMEs | The Old Farmer's Almanac

A Blast From the Sun

Coming right at you! SOHO satellite’s image of the huge mass of gas hurtling towards Earth from the January 22 solar flare. SOURCE NASA.
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It came from Outer Space!  Yes, that’s the title of an old Sci-Fi movie, but it’s also the solar storm that is expected to hit the Earth today.

It will be the strongest radiation storm to hit the Earth since 2003. After years of quiet, the sun is awake and sputtering with sunspots, flares and CMEs (Coronal Mass Ejections). Some of this massive storminess is spewing out from the sun and hitting us!

The sun goes from quiet to stormy and back again in an 11-year cycle. During the stormiest times, huge magnetic fields, stretched beyond endurance snap and break. This splatters large hunks of the solar gas and plasma out into space. We call the snapping “solar flares”. The huge splashes of hot, ionized gas and plasma are CMEs.

The current splatter started with a huge solar flare that exploded on Sunday, Jan. 22 at 10:59 p.m. EST. It blasted some of the sun’s atmosphere out into space, right towards us at 4 million miles per hour. Fortunately, the Earth’s magnetic field protects us from most of the CME, but some particles are leaking in through the North and South Poles.

Large solar storms can damage satellites, electrical grids and pipelines and interfere with GPS, radio communication and air travel. SOURCE: NASA

NASA observes these solar storms carefully. After all, they have satellites and astronauts to protect. Even though this is the largest storm in nine years, they expect this CME to be only moderate, with the worst of the storm probably going north of Earth. On the NOAA scale of radiation storms, this one ranks as an S3, which means it could cause some reboots of satellite computers and interfere with polar radio communications. The biggest problem we will have is that the airplane flights that cross over the poles to reach Asia and Europe will fly different routes until normal radio communication returns.

Meanwhile, the skies should glow with energy. Experts are saying parts of New England, upstate New York, northern Michigan, Montana and the Pacific Northwest could see an aurora this Tuesday evening.

Let us know if you see anything. It could be quite spectacular. Remember – the busy part of the solar cycle is only starting. We have years of storms and auroras ahead of us.