Solar flare races towards Earth, expected to cause disruptions to Earth's magnetic field
The largest solar flare in years is hurdling towards Earth at 4 million mph and is expected to hit early Thursday morning.
(Page 2 of 2)
Storms like this start with sun spots, Hathaway said.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Then comes an initial solar flare of subatomic particles that resemble a filament coming out of the sun. That part already hit Earth only minutes after the initial burst, bringing radio and radiation disturbances.
After that comes the coronal mass ejection, which looks like a growing bubble and takes a couple of days to reach Earth. It's that ejection that could cause magnetic disruptions Thursday.
"It could give us a bit of a jolt," NASA solar physicist Alex Young said.
The storm follows an earlier, weaker solar eruption that happened Sunday, Kunches said.
For North America, the good part of a solar storm, the one that creates more noticeable auroras or Northern Lights, will peak Thursday evening in North America. Auroras could dip as far south as the Great Lakes between Canada and the United States or lower, Kunches said, but a full moon will make them harder to see.
Auroras are "probably the treat we get when the sun erupts," Kunches said.
Still, the potential for problems is widespread. Solar storms have three ways they can disrupt technology on Earth: with magnetic, radio and radiation emissions. This is an unusual situation, when all three types of solarstorm disruptions are likely to be strong, Kunches said. That makes it the strongest overall since December 2006.
That means "a whole host of things" could follow, he said.
North American utilities are monitoring for abnormalities on their grids and have contingency plans, said Kimberly Mielcarek, spokeswoman for the North American Electric Reliability Corp., a consortium of electricity grid operators.
In 1989, a strong solar storm knocked out the power grid in Quebec, causing 6 million people to lose power.
Solar storms also can make global positioning systems less accurate and cause GPS outages.
The storm could trigger communication problems and additional radiation around the north and south poles — a risk that probably will force airlines to reroute flights. Some already have done so, Kunches said.
Satellites could be affected, too. NASA spokesman Rob Navias said the space agency is not taking any extra precautions to protect astronauts on the International Space Station from added radiation.