Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A solar flare? So what's all the fuss about?

Every time there is a solar event, people become fearful, not knowing what to expect. Large solar flares are relatively uncommon and create quite the stir of excitement among the folks that observe space weather regularly. Relax, the world is not coming to an end! 

So what is all the fuss about?

The sun erupted with a powerful solar flare on Tuesday, disrupting radio traffic and sending a blast of electrically charged particles our way. And there may be more blasts to come.

The X1.2-class flare was recorded by sun-observing satellites, including NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, at about 2:32 p.m. ET. X-class flares are the strongest category of solar outbursts, although X1.2 is toward the category's low end. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center said the flare sparked a strong radio blackout.

For days, space weather forecasters have been bracing themselves for solar eruptions from a large active sunspot region called AR1944. This region has now turned to face Earth directly, which means strong solar flares are likely to send storms of charged particles — also known as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs — heading straight for us.

Strong solar storms can damage satellites and electrical grids. One such outburst in 1989 knocked out power for a wide swath of Quebec. And don't get us started about thesuperstorm of 1859!

The geomagnetic storm generated by Tuesday's flare won't be that disruptive, but it could have an impact. NASA expects the CME to sweep over us somewhere around 3 p.m. ET Wednesday. The current space weather report says there's a chance we'll see more X-class flares through Friday.

Can it physically harm us?

It has long been established that magnetic storms not only affect the performance of equipment, upset radio communications, blackout radars, and disrupt radio navigation systems but also endanger living organisms. They change the blood flow, especially in capillaries, affect blood pressure, and boost adrenalin.

The young and fit couldn't care less, but those who are older, may develop problems. They have to consider the state of magnetosphere in their daily plans. Before, people were glued to weather forecasts. Now they are obsessed with the geomagnetic situation. Though it is unlikely that most will suffer any long term harm, those with pacemakers could, in extreme cases, be affected.

A space radiation storm happens when an explosion on the sun accelerates solar protons toward Earth. These protons stream past our planet where they are (mostly) deflected by Earth's protected magnetic field. The NOAA Space Environment Center has defined five types of radiation storms, ranging from mild to extreme. Browse the table below to learn what effects these storms can have on human biology and Earth: http://www.spaceweather.com/glossary/srs.html

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