High Alert as Third Solar Storm Hurtles Towards Earth

 
on August 07 2011 10:09 AM

Three large solar explosions from the Sun are threatening to cause chaos on earth, with energy from the release potentially shutting down communications systems and power grids across the world.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- a U.S. agency that focuses on the condition of the oceans and atmosphere -- said the magnetic storm that is soon to develop would probably be in the moderate to strong level, prompting warnings to power operators and other industries that could be affected.

"We now know how powerful space weather can be and how events that begin on the surface of the Sun can end up wreaking havoc here on Earth," said said Tom Bogdan, director of NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center. "This is why NOAA has a Space Weather Prediction Center - to forecast when space weather is coming our way, so we can avoid or mitigate damages."

The first of the three solar explosions from the sun already passed Thursday and Friday with little impact but forecasts are calling for the second, passing this weekend is thought to be stronger.

But there is a third coming this week.

"We'll have to see what happens over the next few days," said Joseph Kunches, a NOAA scientist. "It could exacerbate the disturbance in the Earth's magnetic field caused by the second (storm) or do nothing at all."

The geomagnetic storm could affect communications and global positioning system (GPS) satellites and might even produce an aurora visible as far south as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Major disruptions have already been seen in the past.

In 1859, a surge of power from a major geomagnetic storm hit telegraph offices around the world, injuring telegraph operators, and setting papers ablaze. Many telegraph systems still sent and received signals even after operators disconnected batteries.

In 1989, a solar storm took down the power grid in Quebec, Canada, leaving about six million people without power for several hours.

"It was as if the very air was charged with electricity," the NOAA said.

A storm of similar magnitude today could cause $2 trillion in damage, globally, according a 2008 report of the National Research Council. GPS and mobile phones could go down, power grids could become disrupted.

Of particular concern is that airline and military communications could get disrupted, or even go dark This has already occurred in 2011: during space weather events in February and June, airlines reported loss of HF communication near the Arctic.

Those in low orbit can also get an extra dose of radiation.

Power grid managers receive alerts from the Space Weather Prediction Center to tell them to prepare for solar events, which peak about every 12 years.

The next solar maximum is expected in 2013, prompting scientists to step up their efforts to monitor space weather ad people become increasingly reliant on systems vulnerable to space weather.

The U.S. and the UK are collaborating to create a sophisticated new model for more accurate predictions of both terrestrial weather and the effects of space weather on Earth's technological systems.

NOAA says its also engaging more with the general public to answer the question: "Solar Maximum -- Can we weather the Storm?"

"I honestly don't know if there's a yes or no answer," said SWPC space scientist Joe Kunches.

 

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