U.S. government scientists are cautioning users of telecom and electric equipment to prepare for possible disruptions from a likely magnetic sun storm over the next few days.”The magnetic storm that is soon to develop probably will be in the moderate to strong level,” said Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist at the Space Weather Prediction centre, a division of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.
According to Kunches, solar storms can affect telecom and GPS satellites, and people as far south as Wisconsin might be able to see the storms’ resulting aurora. Usually the aurora borealis, called the northern lights, are limited to northern latitudes, but the energy of this storm’s colliding energized particles may broaden the display.
The increasing frequency of solar flares happen when energy stored in twisted magnetic fields, usually above sunspots, is suddenly released. The result is a burst of radiation across the spectrum, from radio waves to x-rays and gamma rays.
Solar activity has caused minor disruptions in the past. In 1989, a solar storm took down the power grid in Quebec, Canada, leaving about six million people without power for several hours.
The largest solar storm recorded took place in September 1859, when communications infrastructure consisted of mostly telegraph equipment. That storm caused a giant aurora that was visible as far south as the Caribbean Islands.
A similar magnitude solar storm today could cause up to $2 trillion in damage around the world, according to a 2008 report by the National Research Council.
“I don’t think this week’s solar storms will be anywhere near that. This will be a two or three out of five on the NOAA Space Weather Scale,” said Kunches.
There have been three solar explosions from the sun already this week, but the first one passed the earth with little impact. However, the second one, Kunches said, “seems to be stronger.” If that trend continues when the third one passes earth, it could be more disruptive to the Earth’s magnetic field.
At this time, Kunches stressed, it is equally likely the second blow may not be stronger.
As a practice, the Space Weather Prediction centre alerts power grid managers of upcoming solar events so they can plan for them. The next peak, called a solar maximum, is expected in 2013.
“We’re coming up to the next solar maximum, so we expect to see more of these storms coming from the sun over the next three to five years,” Tom Bogdan, director of the centre, said.