STRONGEST SOLAR STORM SINCE 2005 HITTING EARTH
The solar flare occurred at about 11 p.m. EST Sunday and will hit Earth with three different effects at three different times. The biggest issue is radiation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado.
The radiation is mostly a concern for satellite disruptions and astronauts in space. It can cause communication problems for polar-traveling airplanes, said space weather center physicist Doug Biesecker.
That said, NASA has predicted a December 2012, solar super flare. Now I’m not saying a giant solar storm is going to wipe out all life on earth. But it most likely will wipe out all electricity and electronics, just like it did on September 1, 1859. Back then the only critical electronic device was the telegraph machine and wires (which all spontaneously ignited); today however, we’re dangerously dependent on an electrical grid that’s epically decrepit and extremely susceptible to power failure.
In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued an annual report card giving the U.S.’s energy infrastructure a D+. Couple that with the NASA-funded study by the National Academy of Sciences, that predicts the collapse of our electrically dependent society.
Think about it, the entire world as we know it, runs on electricity. Our cars, jobs, businesses, banking, homes, economy, food supplies, water supplies, waste management, goods, emergency services, government. It all runs off money and electricity and IF, or I should say, when either of those fail, our world collapses.
The problem is comically simple, the millions and millions of miles of electrical lines wrapped up high on poles, act like antennas, and actually absorb the grounding currents released from solar storms, ultimately melting the copper lines and the copper coils inside the transformers; which wasn’t THAT big of a deal until the power companies connected all the power grids together in an effort to save money. Now, if the ground currents only strike in one area, what once would have been a localized black-out will now be distributed across entire continents.
But the problem is two-fold. Besides the fact that this wonderful electrical system which brings us such wonderful electrical comforts and devices has basically a 100% chance of failing wonderfully, they won’t be able to start it back up again even if they wanted to. In order to bring back power to the country/world, they’d have to replace the millions and millions of miles of electrical cable and transformers, which would take about 30 years, not counting any future solar storms, which of course would just wipe it all out again. By that time the economic, political and structural societal effects would be catastrophic.
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Radiation from Sunday’s flare arrived at Earth an hour later and will likely continue through Wednesday. Levels are considered strong but other storms have been more severe. There are two higher levels of radiation on NOAA’s storm scale — severe and extreme — Biesecker said. Still, this storm is the strongest for radiation since May 2005.
The radiation — in the form of protons — came flying out of the sun at 93 million miles per hour.
“The whole volume of space between here and Jupiter is just filled with protons and you just don’t get rid of them like that,” Biesecker said. That’s why the effects will stick around for a couple days.
NASA’s flight surgeons and solar experts examined the solar flare’s expected effects and decided that the six astronauts on the International Space Station do not have to do anything to protect themselves from the radiation, spokesman Rob Navias said.
A solar eruption is followed by a one-two-three punch, said Antti Pulkkinen, a physicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and Catholic University.
First comes electromagnetic radiation, followed by radiation in the form of protons.
Then, finally the coronal mass ejection — that’s the plasma from the sun itself — hits. Usually that travels at about 1 or 2 million miles per hour, but this storm is particularly speedy and is shooting out at 4 million miles per hour, Biesecker said.
It’s the plasma that causes much of the noticeable problems on Earth, such as electrical grid outages. In 1989, a solar storm caused a massive blackout in Quebec. It can also pull the northern lights further south.
But this coronal mass ejection seems likely to be only moderate, with a chance for becoming strong, Biesecker said. The worst of the storm is likely to go north of Earth.
And unlike last October, when a freak solar storm caused auroras to be seen as far south as Alabama, the northern lights aren’t likely to dip too far south this time, Biesecker said. Parts of New England, upstate New York, northern Michigan, Montana and the Pacific Northwest could see an aurora but not until Tuesday evening, he said.
For the past several years the sun had been quiet, almost too quiet. Part of that was the normal calm part of the sun’s 11-year cycle of activity. Last year, scientists started to speculate that the sun was going into an unusually quiet cycle that seems to happen maybe once a century or so.
Now that super-quiet cycle doesn’t seem as likely, Biesecker said.
Scientists watching the sun with a new NASA satellite launched in 2010 — during the sun’s quiet period — are excited.
“We haven’t had anything like this for a number of years,” Pulkkinen said. “It’s kind of special.”
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