Another solar storm is blasting the Earth. Here's what's going on with today's storm and what you need to know about the potential for future storms.
You may be having a typical Thursday, but the Earth is currently being blasted by a wave of radiation from a huge solar flare.
NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center said the solar storm hit the Earth at about 2:45 a.m. PT. The solar storm is one of the strongest in years and could cause disruptions in satellites, affect radio communications in polar areas, and even slightly decrease the efficiency of solar panels.
This solar storm follows a similarly strong one only two months ago. Here's a short primer on what's going on.
First, are these solar storms dangerous?
In general, the physical danger is low and controllable. The biological hazard inherent in solar and geomagnetic storms comes from the exposure to radiation, which is mainly a concern for astronauts and people flying at high altitudes, according to NOAA's ranking of storm severity.
On the other hand, the disruptions that more severe storms can cause have the potential to bring about real damage. Milder storms may disrupt the satellites that handle GPS communications. But the more severe geomagnetic storms can spike the voltage in transmission lines which could damage grid transformers and potentially knock power out. A massive power outage in the province of Quebec in 1989 was blamed on a solar storm.
What's happening with today's storm?
Today's storm is predicted to reach G3, which is a strong level. The solar radiation is at S3, also strong, and there was a strong-level radio blackout. NOAA this morning noted that "so far the orientation of the magnetic field has been opposite of what is needed to cause the strongest storming." Space forecasters will be closely watching this event as they go on for days.
The increased radiation, which collects along the Earth's poles, means that flights will likely be rerouted to avoid the North Pole, as some were earlier this year. Grid operators have also been notified to monitor potential power surges, according to NOAA.
The influx of super hot gases from the sun hits the magnetic field that protects the Earth and causes the waves of energy and particles to flow toward the poles and collide with the atmosphere. This causes fantastic, multi-hour displays known as auroras. These type of events bring out stargazers to watch the stunning green glow caused by the solar flare in northern countries.
What causes them?
The sun is a big ball of burning gas and solar flares are loop-like explosions at the surface. These cause what are called a coronal mass ejection (CME), where a chunk of the sun breaks off from its atmosphere. The biggest flares can be tens of times the size of the Earth. When there is a coronal mass ejection, high-energy particles can travel at over 1,000 miles per second. This solar flare was caused by two CMEs on Tuesday and passed by several NASA spacecraft, acbording to NASA. There were also two CMEs caused by a solar flare on Sunday, NASA said.
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