Solar bursts head toward Earth -, GA News Weather & Sports

Solar bursts head toward Earth

Denver -

DENVER (RNN) - A solar flare emitted Tuesday is the largest release of energy from the sun in four years and could affect satellite systems and power grids Thursday and Friday, said the National Weather Service's (NWS) Space Weather Prediction Center.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) said the possible effects from the geomagnetic storm include power grid fluctuations, impact on satellite operations, effects on migratory animals and the visibility of auroras in places like New York, Idaho, Michigan and Maine.

"This is the first major activity since about 2006," said Terry Onsager, a NWS physicist based in Denver.

Giant balls of energy

On Thursday, scientists were most concerned with coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which are outflows of plasma from the sun's outer atmosphere, or corona.

On average, CMEs travel about 1 million mph and can be directed anywhere, not necessarily toward Earth.

"The one that was most recently launched, it is headed straight toward us," Onsager said.

Tuesday's burst traveled at double the usual rate, and could arrive on Earth in two days instead of the usual four. It followed two previous bursts earlier in the week.

"Its arrival is imminent, but it has not hit yet," Onsager said Thursday afternoon.

It's those slower bursts that will ultimately determine the overall impact the geomagnetic storm will have on the Earth. The faster burst will run into the slower ones, pushing it like a snow plow towards Earth.

A CME acts as a large battery or generator, sending jolts of electricity into Earth's atmosphere and ionosphere. This creates phenomena, like the aurora borealis and induced currents, which can be sensed in electrical systems on the ground.

States that wouldn't normally be able to see aurora borealis, such as New York or Ohio, might be able to see one Thursday or Friday.

While the current full moon might make visibility more difficult, Onsager said this might be a good chance to see the aurora.

Northern states might also experience high-frequency radio and power disruptions. However, industries are well aware of the risks and have taken appropriate steps to mitigate the effects.

"There is a lot going on behind the scene to protect the integrity of our infrastructure," Onsager said.

11-year cycle

Onsager said the Earth is experiencing the "minimal" part of an 11-year sun cycle, or solar minimum. This week's events are the first part of the new cycle, or solar maximum, which peaks in 2013.

More intense effects of the new sun cycle could be felt by 2012.

"What will happen during solar maximum is that there will be more of these, both large and small."

Onsager said Earth's increasing dependence on technology is making mankind more susceptible to space weather disturbances.

Power grids, for example, are more interconnected and higher in capacity. The more load on the system, the more vulnerable to these high-induced currents.

Errors can occur on GPS, and internet traffic and telecommunications can be disrupted when satellites are affected.

Because of this, Onsager said, scientific research in space weather is more vital than ever.

"Space is no longer just an esoteric part of our economic and defense infrastructure," he said.

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