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Solar storm could become severe 'bell ringer' in next 24 hours (+video)

Solar storm forecasters say the particles disgorged in a massive solar flare could strike Earth in a particular way, which would make a currently moderate solar storm more severe. 

By Staff writer / March 8, 2012

This NASA image shows the solar flare that sent a solar storm of charged particles heading toward Earth.

NASA/AP

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So far, the solar storm buffeting Earth is weaker than experts had forecast. But the intensity could grow quickly, perhaps becoming severe, during the next 24 hours if the remainder of the storm strikes the Earth’s magnetic envelope in a particular way, as scientists say it might.

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At midnight UT the active solar region 1429 unleashed a powerful X5.4-class flare. X-class solar flares are the strongest of the flares. They are major events that can trigger planet-wide radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms.

It appears that right after the large X5.4 flare another slightly lower, X1 flare (5 times smaller) occurred. You can clearly see a wave going across the Sun.

NASA says that they are still gathering data and that the Space Weather Forecast Lab will have updates available soon.

Under those conditions, the storm could pose a more serious threat to power grids, satellites, airliners, and radio communications.

This solar geomagnetic storm – called a coronal mass ejection (CME) by scientists – is the strongest to hit Earth since 2005.

Satellite operators were being advised by NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., that some of their systems could be damaged by the cloud of charged particles now reaching earth, which were emitted earlier this week as part a huge solar flare.

Canadian space-weather monitoring groups also sent warnings to power-grid operators at northern latitudes most vulnerable to the storm. At midday, the grid operator for the New England region, which receives the Canadian warnings, said the storm-intensity alerts did not yet require specific actions. Typically, these actions would include firing up local generating plants to reduce stress on long-distance transmission lines.

The nation's three big, regional grids were also doing fine at late morning, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corp., which is in charge of reliability for the nation's major power grids.

Currently, the storm registers at about a G2 level on an intensity scale that goes from one to five, with five being the strongest, says Antti Pulkkinen, a solar weather research scientist at NASA-Goddard.

But that could change. "Based on what we're seeing in the data, it appears there's a good chance of a strong geomagnetic storm somewhere around the G5 level in the next 24 hours," says Dr. Pulkkinen.

Whether this happens could largely be a question of the storm’s orientation.

If the billions of tons of charged particles hitting the Earth strike it in a northward orientation – which is the same direction as the Earth's own magnetic field – then it's "like water off a duck's back," says Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

But if the reverse occurs, which seems possible based on the data he's seeing, "now the fields collide like they love each other, there's and embrace, and energy from the [coronal mass ejection] has opened the gate and floods into Earth's vicinity."

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