Solar Flare Affecting Earth – What You Should Know

By Nikki Garrett Metzger
Managing Editor
Photo By NASA

(Victor Valley)– – There has been quite a bit of chatter lately about a large solar flare that erupted form the sun on Tuesday and was expected to hit earth early this morning. But, should you be worried about this?

“Probably not,” said John Varsik, Research Professor at the Big Bear Solar Observatory. “If we were farther north we would see more auroral activity than usual. But probably not this far south. Otherwise the general public probably won’t notice a great deal.”

So, what makes up a solar flare? Varsik explained that there are basically 3 different things that happen in these solar events; the first is the flare itself, the X-ray flare, and that reaches earth at the speed of light. The second thing that happens with some flares, as happened with this one, is called a proton event. And that takes anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours to reach us. And the third thing is the coronal mass ejection, which, again, may or may not affect us, depending on where the flare happens on the sun and where it happens to be pointed.

The coronal mass ejection, or blast of plasma from the Sun’s surface, is expected to cause a geomagnetic storm when it reaches earth. “It will cause the northern lights, disruptions on magnetic compasses and other navigation systems, and it could cause ground currents in power grids,” said Varsik. “But I expect it probably is not strong enough to affect the power grids because our modern systems have protections against these things. It takes a really big event to have any kind of significant effect.”

“In the polar regions there will be radio blackouts. Primarily its the high frequency radio or what we used to call short wave radio that is affected,” continued Varsik. This is important because the geosynchronous satellites are not visible from those latitudes, so many of the passenger aircraft that are on polar routes still use this high frequency radio to communicate with air traffic control. Many of those flights are re-routed during events like this.

This flare is the latest is what is ramping up to be an active solar flare cycle. The Sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. The number of dark spots on the Sun (sunspots) marks this variation; as the number of sunspots increases, so does solar activity. Sunspots are sources of flares, the most violent events in the solar system. In a matter of minutes, a large flare releases a million times more energy than the largest earthquake, according to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

“A region like this can appear anytime between now and two to three years after the peak of the cycle,” said Varsik. “A big region like this tends to be rare, you’ll only see maybe half a dozen or so in an 11 year cycle, but they can be quite impressive.”

For more information on solar flares and space weather, visit NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center website http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/

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