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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. 

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"This is not a bell-ringer yet,” Dr. Baker says. “But it is a storm that looks like it is oriented in a way that should drive it to greater heights."

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Intense debate has swirled over and what, if anything, to do about solar storms beyond reactive, defensive actions. Only a handful of such storms has had any serious impact during the past century. Still, societies are more dependent on power grids than ever – and damage to the grid could be severe in some cases.

The power grid is 10 times larger than it was in 1921, when the last solar super storm hit, effectively making it a giant new antenna for geomagnetic current. A far stronger solar outburst could overload and wreck hundreds of crucial high-voltage transformers nationwide, blacking out 130 million people for months and costing as much as $2 trillion, according to a 2010 Oak Ridge National Laboratory study.

The White House and the British government last year unveiled plans to collaborate on a space-weather warning system that would improve predictions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is using a computer-modeling system to predict space weather that became operational last fall. The idea is to give power-grid operators and others time and certainty to prepare for a solar storm.

“I think the utility industry has become much more conscious of the threat from geomagnetic storms – and a lot can be done just monitoring the grid and being prepared to lower power on segments of the grid when they need to do it or fire up local generators," says Jeffrey Hughes, director of the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling at Boston University, which developed the NOAA computer-modeling system. "Obviously, they don't like to do it because it costs more." 

The coronal-mass ejection reached NASA's ACE satellite at about 5:45 a.m. Eastern time Thursday, says Joseph Kunches, a physicist with NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo. Ground-based sensors registered the CME's arrival 20 minutes later.

The plasma from the ejection continues to strike Earth's magnetic field and should continue to do so through Friday morning, says Dr. Kunches.

• Staff writer Pete Spotts contributed to this article.

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