Largest solar storm since 2006 threatens GPS, communications

Michael Santo's picture

Another solar storm is hitting the Earth, the result of a coronal mass ejection from a solar flare, but concerns of the results of the storm should focus less on any biological effects and more on technological effects.

Solar storms run on a cycle which is about 11 years in length. The last maximal period was in 2001 and as the Sun leaves its solar minimum period geomagnetic and radiation storms are growing more frequent. The CMEs, however, are bursts of charged particles and plasma, and we and other living things are generally protected by Earth’s magnetic field.

That said, airlines will most likely re-route their flights away from the polar regions, where the protection of Earth's magnetic field is less extant. Additionally, our world has become still more technologically dependent, with GPS, radio communications, satellite communications, and still more electronics possibly affected by the solar storm.

In fact, as time goes on, we can only be seen getting more vulnerable, not less. There is only a certain amount of shielding that is possible.

The solar storm came after a pair of solar flares and a CME which followed overnight on Tuesday to Wednesday of this week. On a five-step scale, the solar storm registers at level three, which you might think sounds mild, but is not.

The first of the two solar flares was the second largest in this solar minimum cycle (which began in early 2007). It has been surpassed in strength only by a flare last August, in 2011. It was classified as a Class X solar flare. Wikipedia notes that solar flares are classified as A, B, C, M or X according to the peak flux (in watts per square meter, W/m2) of 100 to 800 picometer X-rays near Earth, as measured on the GOES spacecraft.

The solar flares alone, much less the solar storm, has already caused brief high frequency radio blackouts that have already passed.

Those hoping to "watch" the solar storm are more likely to see evidence of its effects than the solar storm itself. The visible portion of the storm, as viewed from Earth, would be increased aurora borealis activity, but unless you are far enough north -- with most saying that would be at least as far north as the Great Lakes region -- you won't be able to see that activity.

It was expected to be visible over central Asia at nightfall on Thursday.

The storm's effects are expected to last days.

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Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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