Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Stormy Sun!

Massive solar flares erupting from the sun over the last few days have garnered quite a bit of attention from space weather enthusiasts. While most of us are unlikely to notice any impacts from the flares, they can have significant effects on portions of our planet.

Last Friday, March 2nd, an active sunspot region -- named 'Region 1429' -- emerged into view on the surface of the sun. A trio of flares erupted from the sun from Friday to Sunday, with the largest occurring Sunday night. The video below from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) shows the eruptions.

Solar flares are rated on a scale whereby 'A' is the smallest, followed by B, C, M, and X - the largest. Sunday's flare was rated an X1.1.

It appears as though the mass of charged particles from Sunday's flare only dealt a glancing blow to earth, with the most significant burst likely just missing our planet.

Tuesday evening, an even larger flare was spotted bursting from the same active region of the sun and it was given an X5-class rating. NASA released a video similar to the one above showing Tuesday's massive flare.

These 'solar storms' can be rather difficult to understand, so let me try to breakdown the few elements involved.
  • First, fairly soon after the solar flare occurred Tuesday evening, there were some 'radio blackouts' reported on the sunlit side of the earth. These impacts are confined to high frequency (HF) radio signals, primarily impacting some broadcast entities and navigation frequencies for aviation. The radio blackout was given an R3 ('strong') rating -- see scale here.
  • The flare also produced a large coronal mass ejection (CME). NOAA space weather forecasters are saying the peak impacts from this CME will likely begin within a few hours, give or take, of daybreak Thursday our time.
  • Potential geomagnetic impacts:
    • NOAA forecasting G3 ('strong') storm levels -- see scale here.
    • Increased aurora, although very unlikely to be seen this far south.
    • Problems with GPS systems
    • Electrical power grid interference (power companies have been alerted)
    • Flights near the poles may be diverted because of navigation system interference
  •  Solar radiation impacts:
    • NOAA forecasting S4 ('severe') storm levels -- see scale here.
    • Astronauts aboard the Space Station must be monitored.
    • Satellites can experience significant problems.
I sat in on a conference call with a NOAA space weather expert this morning who says that the active sunspot region will continue to have the ability to provide significant impacts over the next week or so. In fact, he said forecasters are expecting more large solar flares (and CMEs) in the coming days.

Here are a few links with more information:

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