BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - The sun plays a huge role in making life possible, but our nearest star can also be quite chaotic. Our sun, with a radius 100 times that of the Earth fires away at a distance of a mere 93 million miles. That is very little in terms of "space" distance.
Every 11 years the sun goes through a sunspot cycle. At maximum, solar flares and other disturbances can be numerous, and at minimum mostly nonexistent. There is also a longer 80-100 year cycle.
Right now we are within one of those 11 year cycles. The cycle began in 2008 and should peak next year. The solar wind is constantly bombarding the upper levels of our atmosphere. Lucky for us there are layers of the atmosphere that protect us from harmful gamma and X-rays coming in from the sun, but these solar explosions can cause disruptions in the Earth's upper atmosphere called geomagnetic storms.
When there is a solar flare, and there have been several this week, the solar wind becomes much more energized and transports solar particles at a rate of 1 to 4 million miles per hour toward the earth. On Sunday there was such an event.
"When we see 4 million miles an hour, we sit up and take notice," notes Douglas Beisecker from NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center at Boulder.
As you would expect, this has all sorts of implications. Biesecker monitors the sun and how it impacts the earth from the government's Space Weather Prediction Center at Boulder.
"This is the largest radiation storm we've seen since October of 2003."
There was yet another impulse that hit the upper atmosphere of the earth around 5:30 AM Thursday morning. The orientation of our magnetic field can be a factor in the eventual impact on Earth. Thursday, it was in a more favorable position. That may not be the case next time.
The shock waves from flares on the sun can fill our night sky with the spectacular shades of the aurora. Think of the gases of the upper atmosphere as the neon gas in a neon light bulb. When increased electricity excites oxygen it gives off green shades, and nitrogen, the reds and violets.
But there can be other consequences and even though they are not common, there is a long history of solar events causing all sorts of problems for us down here on Earth. Back on Easter Sunday 1940, millions couldn't call grandma's house due to a geomagnetic storm. And phone cables between Fargo and Winnipeg were fused together. In 1956, Providence television stations showed up on Boston TV channels. On February 11, 1958, a radio blackout caused by a solar flare cut off the United States from the rest of the world.
During March of '89, the entire Quebec power grid collapsed and if it hadn't been for a few safeguards, could have turned into a six billion dollar catastrophe with the outage spreading in to the eastern United States. And during October of 2003, the Midori-2 research satellite was lost due to a solar flare and astronauts hid deep within the International Space Station reporting ocular shooting stars.
Electrical distribution companies are often forced to compensate for interference from geomagnetic storms. Broadcast communication can be disrupted, including cell phone transmissions. Satellite communication doesn't work that well either, impacting navigational aids to marine and aviation traffic and GPS. Planes have had to reroute away from the North Pole in order to deal with radio interference.
According to Beisecker, "This radiation storm is long. These effects don't come around very often, but when they do, you have to live with them for several days."
But for those lucky enough to have clear skies and catch the northern lights, it's probably not too much of a problem.
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