Home > Solar Cycle 24, Space, Sun > NASA: Huge Solar Flare Jamming Radio And Satellite Signals, Could Affect Electric Grid, Bright Auroras Expected

NASA: Huge Solar Flare Jamming Radio And Satellite Signals, Could Affect Electric Grid, Bright Auroras Expected

February 17, 2011

According to NASA, a large solar eruption triggered a giant geomagnetic storm that has disturbed radio communications and could disrupt electrical power grids, radio and satellite communication in the next days

The calm before the storm. Three CMEs are enroute, all a part of the Radio Blackout events on February 13, 14, and 15 (UTC). The last of the three seems to be the fastest and may catch both of the forerunners about mid to late day tomorrow, February 17. Watch this space for updates on the impending — G2, possibly periods of G3 — geomagnetic storming.
Watch Today’s Space Weather for the most recent activity.

This is a composite image of the Sun at the moment of the X2.2 flare. Image courtesy of SDO

(NASA)

Credit: NASA/SDO

A strong wave of charged plasma particles emanating from the Jupiter-sized sun spot, the most powerful seen in four years, has already disrupted radio communication in southern China.

Solar Activity Forecast: Solar activity is expected to be moderate with a chance for an isolated major flare for the next three days (17-19 February). Region 1158 is expected to produce more M-class flares and still has the potential for producing an M5 or greater x-ray event. There is a chance for isolated M-class activity from Region 1161. according to a February 16th report from NASA.

Geophysical Activity Forecast: The geomagnetic field is expected to be predominately quiet on day one (February 17). An increase to unsettled to active conditions, with a chance for minor storm periods is expected late on day one into day two (18 February). The increased activity is forecast due to the expected arrival of the CME associated with the X2 flare that occurred on 15/0156Z. Day three (19 February) is expected to be quiet to active as the disturbance subsides

The Class X flash — the largest such category — erupted at 0156 GMT Tuesday, according NASA.

The sun emitted its first X-class flare in more than four years on February 14 at 8:56 p.m. EST.

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Credit: NASA/SDO

Looks like the new solar cycle is beginning to ramp up. The sun emitted its first X-class flare in more than four years on February 14 at 8:56 p.m. EST.

X-class flares are the most powerful of all solar events that can trigger radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms.

This particular flare comes on the heels of a few M-class and several C-class flares over the past few days. It also has a CME associated with it that is traveling about 900 Km/second and is expected to reach Earth’s orbit on Feb. 16 at about 10 p.m. EST

Active region 1158 let loose with an X2.2 flare late on February 15, the largest flare since Dec. 2006 and the biggest flare so far in Solar Cycle 24. Active Region 1158 is in the southern hemisphere, which has been lagging the north in activity but now leads in big flares! Here is a blowup of the flaring region taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory in the extreme ultraviolet wavelength of 193 Angstroms. Much of the vertical line in the image is caused by the bright flash overwhelming the SDO imager.
Here is a blowup of the flaring region taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory in the extreme ultraviolet wavelength of 193 Angstroms. Much of the vertical line in the image is caused by the bright flash overwhelming the SDO imager.

Credit: NASA/SDO

The China Meteorological Administration reported that the solar flare caused “sudden ionospheric disturbances” in the atmosphere above China and jammed short-wave radio communications in the southern part of the country, according to a report from the AFP. The CMA warned there was a high probability that large solar flares would appear over the next three days, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

The British Geological Survey (BGS) said meanwhile that the solar storm would result in spectacular Northern Lights displays starting Thursday. Since 13th February three energetic solar flares have erupted on the Sun and spewed clouds of charged plasma called coronal mass ejections (CMEs) out towards the Earth. The biggest of the three flares (an X2.2 at 01:56, 15th Feb) is the largest in over four years. We need to go back to the 13th Dec 2006 to find a bigger one.

Already one CME arrived on the 14th sparking Valentine’s Day displays of the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) further south than usual. See pictures from Northern Ireland in the UK (external link)

Northern Lights from 21st Oct 2003 in Crooktree, NE Scotland.

Northern Lights from 21st Oct 2003 in Crooktree, NE Scotland. Photo courtest of Jim Henderson Photography

Photo courtesty of Jim Henderson Photography

The other two CMEs are expected to arrive in the next 24-48 hours. Recent estimates suggest arrival later on the 17th or early 18th Feb. Magnetic storms are likely to follow the arrival of these later CMEs.

Further Northern Lights (aurora) displays are possible some time over the next two nights if skies are clear and the activity peaks in your local night-time.

The aurora is a consequence of activity on the surface of the Sun. Occasionally there are large explosions on the Sun, and huge amounts of charged particles are thrown out into space. These particles sometimes travel towards Earth where they are captured by the Earth’s magnetic field and guided towards the geomagnetic polar regions.

On their way down these particles are slowed down by Earth’s atmosphere, which acts as a shield. These charged particles collide with gas molecules in the atmosphere. The energy released in these collisions is given off as light.

When a charged particle collides with a molecule in the atmosphere the molecule becomes excited. The excited molecule is unstable and will give up its extra energy by emitting light.

The colour of the light depends on the molecules being excited. Like a sodium street light which gives off an orange light, the oxygen, nitrogen and other gases in the atmosphere have their own particular colours resulting in the range of blues, greens, yellows and reds observed in aurorae.

A NASA-funded study by the National Academy of Sciences entitled Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts details what might happen to our modern, high-tech society in the event of a “super solar flare” followed by an extreme geomagnetic storm. They found that almost nothing is immune from space weather—not even the water in your bathroom.

To estimate the scale of such a failure, report co-author John Kappenmann of the Metatech Corporation looked at the great geomagnetic storm of May 1921, which produced ground currents as much as ten times stronger than the 1989 Quebec storm, and modeled its effect on the modern power grid. He found more than 350 transformers at risk of permanent damage and 130 million people without power. The loss of electricity would ripple across the social infrastructure with “water distribution affected within several hours; perishable foods and medications lost in 12-24 hours; loss of heating/air conditioning, sewage disposal, phone service, fuel re-supply and so on.”

“The concept of interdependency,” the report notes, “is evident in the unavailability of water due to long-term outage of electric power–and the inability to restart an electric generator without water on site.”

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Above: What if the May 1921 superstorm occurred today? A US map of vulnerable transformers with areas of probable system collapse encircled. A state-by-state map of transformer vulnerability is also available: click here. Credit: National Academy of Sciences.

The strongest geomagnetic storm on record is the Carrington Event of August-September 1859, named after British astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the instigating solar flare with his unaided eye while he was projecting an image of the sun on a white screen. Geomagnetic activity triggered by the explosion electrified telegraph lines, shocking technicians and setting their telegraph papers on fire; Northern Lights spread as far south as Cuba and Hawaii; auroras over the Rocky Mountains were so bright, the glow woke campers who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning. Best estimates rank the Carrington Event as 50% or more stronger than the superstorm of May 1921.

“A contemporary repetition of the Carrington Event would cause … extensive social and economic disruptions,” the report warns. Power outages would be accompanied by radio blackouts and satellite malfunctions; telecommunications, GPS navigation, banking and finance, and transportation would all be affected. Some problems would correct themselves with the fading of the storm: radio and GPS transmissions could come back online fairly quickly. Other problems would be lasting: a burnt-out multi-ton transformer, for instance, can take weeks or months to repair. The total economic impact in the first year alone could reach $2 trillion, some 20 times greater than the costs of a Hurricane Katrina or, to use a timelier example, a few TARPs.

Above: A web of interdependencies makes the modern economy especially sensitive to solar storms. Source: Dept. of Homeland Security.

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