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Massive Solar Storm Races Toward Earth

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In this handout photo provided by NASA, a Solar and Heliospheric Observatory image shows Region 486 that unleashed a record flare last week (lower left) November 18, 2003 on the sun. The spot itself cannot yet be seen but large, hot, gas-filled loops above this region are visible. These post-flare loops are still active.  (Photo by NASA via Getty Images)

In this handout photo provided by NASA, a Solar and Heliospheric Observatory image shows Region 486 that unleashed a record flare last week (lower left) November 18, 2003 on the sun. The spot itself cannot yet be seen but large, hot, gas-filled loops above this region are visible. These post-flare loops are still active. (Photo by NASA via Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSMiami/AP) — A massive solar storm on the sun is about to have a major impact on earth. Radioactive particles from solar flares may soon start messing with everything from electricity to GPS systems. Fluctuations to some electrical power grids may also be experienced.

The storm started with a massive solar flare earlier in the week and grew as it raced outward from the sun, expanding like a giant soap bubble, scientists said. When it strikes, the particles will be moving at 4 million mph.

“It’s hitting us right in the nose,” said Joe Kunches, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo.

The images of the flares were captured by the geosynchronous Solar Dynamics Observatory. The magnetic field telescope observed the most volatile activity in the region of the Sun known as Active Region 1429.

Astronomers also anticipate that the solar flares may result in a more vivid apparition of the aurora borealis phenomena, also known as the Northern Lights, in the northern hemisphere.

Astronomers say the sun has been relatively quiet for some time. And this storm, while strong, may seem fiercer because Earth has been lulled by several years of weak solar activity.

The storm is part of the sun’s normal 11-year cycle, which is supposed to reach peak storminess next year. Solar storms don’t harm people, but they do disrupt technology. And during the last peak around 2002, experts learned that GPS was vulnerable to solar outbursts.

Because new technology has flourished since then, scientists could discover that some new systems are also at risk, said Jeffrey Hughes, director of the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling at Boston University.

A decade ago, this type of solar storm happened a couple of times a year, Hughes said.

“This is a good-size event, but not the extreme type,” said Bill Murtagh, program coordinator for the federal government’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

For North America, the good part of a solar storm — the one that creates more noticeable auroras or Northern Lights — will peak Thursday evening. Auroras could dip as far south as the Great Lakes states or lower but a full moon will make them harder to see.

Still, the potential for problems is widespread. Solar storms have three ways they can disrupt technology on Earth: with magnetic, radio and radiation emissions.

North American utilities are monitoring for abnormalities on their grids and have contingency plans, said Kimberly Mielcarek, spokeswoman for the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a consortium of electricity grid operators.

In 1989, a strong solar storm knocked out the power grid in Quebec, causing 6 million people to lose power.

Solar storms can also make global positioning systems less accurate and cause GPS outages.

The storm could trigger communication problems and additional radiation around the north and south poles — a risk that will probably force airlines to reroute flights. Some already have done so, Kunches said.

Satellites could be affected, too. NASA spokesman Rob Navias said the space agency isn’t taking any extra precautions to protect astronauts on the International Space Station from added radiation.

(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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