Intense Solar Storm Could Disrupt Power, Communications; Auroras Expected

  on August 07 2011 7:16 AM

The U.S. government has put on alert users of satellite, telecommunications and electric equipment as solar eruptions that happened over the past couple of days are set to trigger intense magnetic storms.

A solar storm happens when a burst of charged particles are thrown out from Sun's Corona barrel into Earth's atmosphere. The phenomenon creates fascinating displays of light, known as auroras, but the ejection of particles also induces currents that surge through telegraph cables, electrical systems and communication equipment.

When this magnetic storms, which took origins 93 million miles away, come to Earth, electrical and communications systems can suffer damage. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) space weather prediction center says magnetic storms triggered by massive flares in the sun could cause disruptions to GPS apps on mobile phones and in cars, power grids that serve critical users such as hospitals and airports, airline communications and military and environmental satellites.

One of the most massive solar flares ever happened in 1859, when a silent surge of power from a major geomagnetic storm fueled by a solar eruption hit telegraph offices around the world. Some telegraph operators got electric shocks and papers caught fire.

The space weather prediction center set up by the NOAA says the latest solar flares can cause moderate-to-strong level magnetic storm. "The magnetic storm that is soon to develop probably will be in the moderate to strong level," Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist at the Space Weather Prediction Center, told Reuters.

Solar Flare A solar flare is a sudden sunspot activity, or in other words, a sudden brightening of the usually cooler and areas of the Sun. According to, the solar storm erupted from a part of the sun called Active Region 1261 and registered as a M9.3-class solar flare. This M class solar flare is seen as having potential to pose damage to communications and global positioning system (GPS) satellites.

While Class C flares are the weakest and have little impact on Earth, Class X solar flares can have disastrous effects. "When aimed directly at Earth, X-class solar flares can endanger satellites and astronauts in space, as well as affect communications, power stations and other infrastructure on the surface," says the report.

How Auroras Happen A solar flare is the phenomenon of great streams of charged particles, protons and electrons, blowing out towards Earth in great speeds. Auroras happen when these particles hit Earth's atmosphere and collide with atoms of gases in the atmosphere, a process that creates ions that emit energy in the form of light of various colors as they regain the lost electrons.

The electrified particles travelling from Sun to Earth are affected by Earth's magnetic field and, instead of penetrating any part of the atmosphere, they flow toward the regions of the north and south magnetic poles where the night sky glows eternally with solar overcharge, according to

The aurora at the northern magnetic pole is called aurora borealis or northern lights, while the natural light display at the southern pole is called aurora australis, or "southern lights.

Green is a dominant color in the aurora lights, mainly because auroras are caused by the ionization of atomic oxygen. Red streaks are also common, caused by the ionization of molecular oxygen and nitrogen.

Aurora displays, which are seen as arcs of light extending hundreds of miles on the horizon, are most frequent at times of immense sunspot activity. Scientists say Earth will witness a peak of sunspots activity around 2013.

As the Sun enters a phase of intense activity, scientists are bracing for havoc on Earth. "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 Tom Bogdan, director of Space Weather Prediction Center.

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