What are Solar Storms? A solar storm is a any activity on the sun's surface which produces solar flares or coronal mass ejections. wThese active conditions emit charged particles out into space in all directions.
Not all of these charged particles will hit the Earth but the ones that do effect our planet in different ways. Depending on their strength, , solar flares can create amazing light shows known as the aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere and the aurora australis in the southern hemisphere. If the output from the sun is strong enough, it can wreak havoc on local or regional power grids, disrupt communications and impact the navigation of ships at sea and jets in the air.
Solar cycles occur every 11 years or so as the Sun reverses its magnetic fields, thus producing a cycle of solar storms marked by solar flares, sunspots and magnetic storms that can have disruptive effects on Earth.
During an active solar period, violent eruptions occur more often on the sun. Solar flares and vast explosions, known as coronal mass ejections (CME) or solar electromagnetic pulse (EMP), shoot energetic photons and highly charged matter toward Earth, jolting the planet's ionosphere and geomagnetic field.
Depending on the strength, these jolts have the potential to affect satellites and Global Positioning System GPS) signals, and even threaten astronauts with harmful radiation.
Auroras / Northern Lights
The Earth is already protected against these charged particles because it has a magnetic field and an atmosphere that blocks most of them. However, some charged particles still get through at the poles because the atmosphere and the magnetic field is weaker there. When the particles get through, something stunningly beautiful takes place.
One of the most spectacular results of this are the auroras. When the charged particles make their way through the Earth's atmosphere, they speed up along the the magnetic field then they collide with the particles in the atmosphere. This is what makes them glow.
That is what we see as the light display known as the aurora.
Solar Cycle Maxium
Solar cycle intensity is measured by the nnumber of sunspots—on the sun's surface in a given year. Some sunspots are actually larger than the Earth and upwards of 4,000 degrees C. According to NASA, if you took a sunspot that hot and put it in the sky all by itself, it would be brighter than our Moon.
When there are a lot of sunspots in a year, then it is more likely that major solar storms will occur. Why? Solar flares erupt near sunspots. When solar flares start picking up, then disruptions on Earth start becoming a digger problem.
And while we can all handle small disruptions, human society has never been more vulnerable to electronics black-outs. The basics of daily life—from communications to weather forecasting to financial services—depend on satellites and high-tech electronics.
A 2008 report by the National Academy of Sciences warned that a century-class solar storm could cause billions in economic damage. They boldly warned that a solar EMP will short out the electrical power grid, forcing up to 130 million Americans to go without electricity for months or years.
1989 Quebec Blackout
Although not as intense as what has been predicted for the 2011 solar maxium, Quebec Province experienced such an event in 1989.
On March 13th, 1989 a huge solar-induced magnetic storm played havoc with the ionosphere and the earth's magnetic field. This storm, the second largest storm experienced in the past 50 years, totally shut down Hydro-Quebec, the power grid servicing Canada's Quebec province.
The Carrington Event - A Super Solar Flare
September 1, 1859, 33-year-old Richard Carrington, England's foremost solar astronomers, observed a group of sunspots.
Suddenly, before his eyes, two brilliant beads of blinding white light appeared over the sunspots, intensified rapidly, and became kidney-shaped.
The explosion produced not only a surge of visible light but also a mammoth cloud of charged particles and detached magnetic loops, known as a CME, and hurled that cloud directly toward Earth.
The next morning when the CME arrived, it crashed into Earth's magnetic field, causing the global bubble of magnetism that surrounds our planet to shake and quiver.
Just before dawn the next day, skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight. Indeed, stunning auroras pulsated even at near tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii.
Researchers call this a "geomagnetic storm." Rapidly moving fields induced enormous electric currents that surged through telegraph lines and disrupted communications.
Right: A modern solar flare recorded Dec. 5, 2006, by the X-ray Imager onboard NOAA's GOES-13 satellite. The flare was so intense, it actually damaged the instrument that took the picture. Researchers believe Carrington's flare was much more energetic than this one.
Solar Storm Classification
Scientists classify solar flares according to their brightness in the x-ray wavelength. They group flares into 3 categories:
X-CLASS FLARES: Major event with the potential to trigger planet-wide radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms.
M-CLASS FLARES: Medium-sized, generally causing brief radio blackouts affecting Earth's polar regions. Minor radiation storms sometimes follow an M-class flare.
C-CLASS FLARES: Compared to X- and M-class events, C-Class flares are small with few noticeable consequences here on Earth.
The video below is a stunning example of an X Class Solar Flare
Speed of Travel
Most solar storms take a few hours from the time they are detected until they reach Earth. Coronal Mass Ejections are massive explosions of matter spewed outward from the sun which can occur over several hours and often take up to two days to reach us. They can happen several times a day for a few days in a row when the sun is going through a particularly violent period of time.
January 2005 was a stormy month in space. With little warning, a giant spot materialized on the sun and started exploding. From Jan. 15 through Jan. 19, sunspot 720 produced four powerful solar flares.
A solar flare on January 20, 2005 released the highest concentration of protons ever directly measured, taking only 15 minutes after observation to reach Earth, indicating a velocity of approximately one-third light speed.
Impact of Solar Storms
Loss of Power is the main concern. The time required for full recovery of service would depend on both the disruption and damage to the electrical power infrastructure and to other national infrastructures. Some predict it will only be a matter of hours or days to restore power as seen with the event in Quebec. While others predict it could years to restore power.
Larger affected areas and stronger EMP field strengths will prolong the time to recover. Some critical electrical power infrastructure components are no longer manufactured in the United States, and their acquisition ordinarily requires up to a year of lead time in routine circumstances. Damage to or loss of these components could leave significant parts of the electrical infrastructure out of service for periods measured in months to a year or more.
Most standby power systems would continue to function after a severe solar storm, but supplying the standby power systems with adequate fuel, when the main power grids are offline for years, could become a very critical problem.
There is a point in time at which the shortage or exhaustion of sustaining backup systems, including emergency power supplies, batteries, standby fuel supplies, communications, and manpower resources that can be mobilized, coordinated, and dispatched, together lead to a continuing degradation of critical infrastructures for a prolonged period of time.
Solar Forecasting & Warnings
While it may not be possible to stop the solar storms, it would be useful to know when they are coming to better prepare for them. Below is a link to a site reporting current activity, warnings and the Long Range Solar Storm Forecast.