Last Week’s Solar Flare Brings Worldwide Scare

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Things started to heat up last tuesday evening when NASA and space-weather watchers observed two solar flares in an active region of the sun known as AR 1429, the first of which was the second largest flare in our current solar-cycle. As a result, the sun emitted projectiles of magnetic material called “coronal mass ejection” (CME), which were detected at the edge of the Earth’s magnetic atmosphere by NASA at 5:42 a.m.

Both flares were categorized as X-Class, the strongest classification of solar flares, with the first flare registering in as an X5.4 flare, second only to the X6.9 flare that hit in August of last year. In other words, that sucker is huge, and flares of this magnitude can really do a number on the earth’s magnetic field, causing what’s known as a geomagnetic storm. This is essentially a headache for GPS systems and high-frequency radio communications.

With two CME’s headed in our direction at speeds of over 1000 miles per second, stargazers were expecting a major geomagnetic event, comparable to the great solar storm of 1859 also known as the Carrington Event. The Carrington Event, named after the British astronomer who spotted the flare, was the largest recorded geometric storm in history, with CME’s reaching the earth in a mere 17 hours, compared to the usual 3 to 4 days it takes to reach the Earth’s magnetosphere.

For now we are in the clear.

The Space Weather Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that the northern orientation of the sun’s magnetic emission produces the least amount of damage, and NASA reports that the geomagnetic storm is a wimpy G1 on a scale of 1 to 5.

If its direction headed south, we would have had big problems. The disruption in the Earth’s natural polarity could ensue a worldwide technological nightmare, with the potential to completely shutdown communication and power grids at international airports. Do you remember the citywide power outage we experienced in San Diego not too long ago due to a faulty power line? Imagine that, but on a global scale.

The worst is yet to come, however, as the NOAA also reports that the orientation of a CME is subject to change, and as this is only the fourth year in our eleven-year solar cycle, we have even greater solar flares and potential geomagnetic storms to look forward to in the near future, particularly in the year 2014.

On a lighter note, last tuesday night’s flares have also made for a spectacular light show as auroras, also known as the Northern Lights, and have been spotted as far south as the Great Lakes. We also get to check out some cool imagery of the solar flares in action.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the sun makes it easy to look on the bright side.

Here is a High-Definition view of the sun taken from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory:

Photo courtesy of NASA

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