Communications on Earth could be disrupted today and tomorrow after the sun emitted a massive solar flare yesterday – the largest in five years.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory observed an eruption from the sun unmatched since 2006. Material was ejected from the sun at a rate of 1 400 km/second.
NASA said the event would deliver a “glancing blow to the Earth’s magnetic field” today or tomorrow.
Solar flares are the most violent explosions in the solar system, each releasing as much energy as a hundred million hydrogen bombs. They send magnetic energy, light, ultraviolet and X-rays into space.
The US National Weather Service’s (NSW’s) Space Weather Prediction Centre said the event is “expected to cause G1 (minor) to G2 (moderate) levels of geomagnetic storm activity tomorrow, June 8, beginning around 1800 GMT.”
“Generally it is not going to cause any big problems, it will just have to be managed,” Bill Murtagh, programme coordinator at the NWS’s Space Weather Prediction Centre, was quoted by AFP as saying.
The solar storm should be over within 12-24 hours.
On May 28 and 29 the Earth experienced category G1 (Minor) and G2 (Moderate) geomagnetic storms due to a coronal hole high-speed solar wind stream, IB Times reports. Bright auroras at high latitudes were visible at both poles of the Earth, including Tasmania, New Zealand, Antarctica and the United States.
In February the sun released solar flares that were the largest such eruptions in four years, prompting experts to warn that such events will strike again, potentially wreaking havoc on Earth as they damage electronic equipment and cause trillions of dollars worth of damage.
Contemporary society is increasingly vulnerable to space weather because of the dependence on satellite systems for synchronizing computers, airline navigation, telecommunications networks and other electronic devices.
A potent solar storm could disrupt these technologies, scorch satellites, crash stock markets and cause power outages that last weeks or months.
“Space weather has to be taken seriously. We’ve had a relatively quiet period of space weather and we expect that quiet period to end,” said Professor Sir John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser.
The situation will only become more dire because the solar cycle is heading into a period of more intense activity in the coming 11 years. Indeed, the sun’s activity rises and falls over an 11 year cycle and is expected to reach its peak in 2013.
“This is not a matter of if, it is simply a matter of when and how big,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator Jane Lubchenco.
Beddington also noted that the growth in the use of complex electronic machinery over the past decade has made society far more susceptible to catastrophic disruption than a decade ago when the last solar activity cycle reached its peak.
Experts say that at the moment there is not much that can be done to predict such a storm, much less shield the world’s electrical grid by doing anything other shutting off power to some of the vulnerable areas until the danger passes.
World governments are hurrying to work on strategies for cooperation and information sharing ahead of the next anticipated storm.
A panel of NASA-assembled scientists issued a report in 2009 that said a powerful solar flare could overwhelm high-voltage transformers with electrical currents and short-circuit energy grids.
Such a catastrophic event could cost the United States alone up to two trillion dollars in repairs in the first year – and it could take up to 10 years to fully recover, the report said.
In addition, high-energy charged particles hitting the Earth have the ability to induce dangerous electric currents in power lines and oil pipelines, according to Thomas Bogdan, director of the Space Weather Prediction Centre in Boulder, Colorado.
He said a 14-year-old early-warning satellite is the only way of directly detecting the potential magnitude of the danger these particles pose to Earth. “Any storm coming from the Sun has to pass over that spacecraft before it hits Earth. If it takes 20 hours to go from the Sun to Earth, it’s going to take about 20 minutes to go from that spacecraft to Earth. So our last warning is a 20-minute warning, which will tell us how big, how strong, how nasty that storm might be.”
A solar flare in 1989 provoked geomagnetic storms that disrupted electric power transmission and caused blackouts across the Canadian province of Quebec, the US space agency said. As a result, six million people were left without power.
Other solar geomagnetic storms have been observed in recent decades. One huge solar flare in 1972 cut off long-distance telephone communication in the midwestern US state of Illinois, NASA said.
Meanwhile, Bao Xingming, solar physicist with the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told the Xinhua news agency that the world must prepare for more intense space weather.
“More such eruptions, even more intense – either from the same solar hotspot or from others – are expected in the coming year or two,” he said.