magnetic energy stored in the Sun’s atmosphere

Solar storm passes without incident so far


Nasa image showing extreme ultraviolet wavelengths on Sun’s surface

A solar storm in the Earth’s magnetic field has largely passed, but adverse effects could still occur, experts say.

“The freight train has gone by, and is still going by, and now we’re just watching for how this is all going to shake out,” said Joseph Kunches, a scientist with US weather agency Noaa.

Charged particles from the Sun will keep on passing the Earth until Friday.

There had been fears that this “coronal mass ejection” could wreak havoc with satellites or power grids on Earth.

However, up to this point, Dr Kunches said, “all told, it’s not a terribly strong event”.

The current coronal mass ejection (CME) – travelling at some 1,300km per second – began arriving at Earth on Thursday morning, after the release of two particularly strong solar flares earlier in the week.

‘Wake-up call’

Activity near the Sun’s surface rises and falls through an 11-year cycle that is due to peak in 2013 or 2014.

Some solar flares result in CMEs – the launch of a huge bubble of charged particles hurtling toward the Earth at speeds up to millions of kilometres per hour.

Solar Storms


Aurora borealis seen from space


  • The sudden release of magnetic energy stored in the Sun’s atmosphere can cause a bright flare
  • This can also release bursts of charged particles into space
  • These solar “eruptions” are known as coronal mass ejections or CMEs
  • When headed in our direction, the charged gas collides with the magnetic “sheath” around Earth
  • The subsequent disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic envelope are called solar storms
  • They can interfere with technology: satellites, electrical grids and communications systems
  • They can also cause aurorae – Northern and Southern Lights – to be seen at lower latitudes

The Earth’s magnetic field protects it from the constant onslaught of high-energy particles from the Sun and elsewhere in the cosmos.

However, the solar storms that mark the arrival of CMEs can disrupt the field enough to have an effect on the Earth’s surface – causing current spikes in power grids or disrupting navigation devices.

Among the more benign effects is that the magnetic-field disturbance can make the Northern Lights visible at lower latitudes.

But it is often unclear, even up to the last minute, just how grave or spectacular the effects will be on Earth – that depends on the magnetic alignment of the material within the CME, which is difficult to predict.

Because different parts of the bubble can have different alignments, scientists say that the storm could still have adverse effects as it passes.

“The magnetic field in the solar wind is not facing in the direction of danger. But it could change, into the early evening,” said David Kerridge, director of geoscience research at the British Geological Survey.

Although space weather scientists have seen no more significant activity since the solar flares that launched the current storm, scientists around the globe are still keeping an a close watch on the Sun.

“The part of the Sun where this came from is still active,” Dr Kerridge told BBC News. “It’s a 27-day cycle and we’re right in the middle of it, so it is coming straight at us and will be for a few days yet. We could see more material,” he explained.

But regardless of its eventual extent, this episode of solar activity is a preview of what is to come in the broader, 11-year solar cycle.

Dr Craig Underwood, from the Surrey Space Centre, UK, said: “The event is the largest for several years, but it is not in the most severe class. We may expect more storms of this kind and perhaps much more severe ones in the next year or so as we approach solar maximum.

“Such events act as a wake-up call as to how our modern western lifestyles are utterly dependent on space technology and national power grid infrastructure.”

1 - Solar flare and eruption. 2 - Billions of tonnes of superhot gas containing charged particles is released. 3 - Particles drawn to poles collide with atmosphere causing polar lights.

Many storms are benign; this storm could enable skywatchers to see the Northern Lights from parts of the northern US and northern UK.

But the strongest storms can have other, more significant effects.

In 1972, a geomagnetic storm provoked by a solar flare knocked out long-distance telephone communication across the US state of Illinois.

And in 1989, another disturbance plunged six million people into darkness across the Canadian province of Quebec.



  1. Mister Rabbitt said,

    March 9, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    It would seem to me that these solar storms have not passed without incident at all. In fact, I think the hype is all wrong. The focus needs to be on the inspirations that we are being uploaded with on a increasingly exponential scale. Every time a solar flare is in the forecast, when it occurs, I have epiphanies of being that are so profound as to shake the entire foundations upon which previous paradigms were nestled upon. Its not about frying mans’ infrastructure and systems, its about upgrading Mankinds’ software environment.

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