Two solar flares that occurred on the sun on 7 March have caused a large cloud of charged particles (a coronal mass ejection; CME) to hurtle towards Earth.
A statement, video and images can be found on the NASA website, with the latest update noting that the CME has reached the edge of the Earth’s magnetic environment, the magnetosphere. The space agency notes:
“Such a CME could result in a severe geomagnetic storm, causing aurora at low latitudes, with possible disruption to high frequency radio communication, global positioning systems (GPS), and power grids.”
Our colleagues at the Australian SMC collected the following expert commentary. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like to contact a New Zealand expert, please contact the SMC (04 499 5476; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Jonathan Nally is a science writer and editor of the Australian space news web site, SpaceInfo.com.au, said:
“The solar cycle and accompanying solar storm activity, rises and falls over a period of 11 years and has been doing so for billions of years.
“NASA reports that the spectacular storm unleashed by the Sun this week is the second-largest (so far) of the current solar cycle. The cycle is on the rise at the moment and is forecast to peak in the next 12 months, so we can expect to see more of these storms.
“Not all solar storms are ejected in a direction that aims at Earth, although this week’s one was and it has been predicted to reach us today.
“These storms can induce effects in technological systems and have the potential to disrupt power grids, long pipelines, and terrestrial and satellite radio communications. But the effects are well understood and the operators of such systems are vigilant and well-prepared to take precautions that minimise or eliminate service interruptions.
“Such “space weather” can also produce stunning aurorae – the Northern and Southern Lights – a harmless and beautiful side-effect of the phenomenon. They can be seen from far northern and southern latitudes, but unfortunately most of Australia is too far north to see the Southern Lights.”
Dr Alina Donea, an astrophysicist in the Monash Centre for Astrophysics, Monash University, Victoria, said:
“With the solar cycle entering a more active phase, today’s solar flare is a sign of things to come. Our dependence on high tech communications systems has made us more vulnerable to such events but we should not panic. Previous flares have taught researchers lessons: we learned more about how to operate the instruments during extreme solar activity.
“Solar flares are categorised by their size (according to the peak flux recorded in watts per square meter, W/m2), as an A, B, C, M or X class flare. A B-class solar flare releases 10 times more energy than an A-class flare, while a C-class eruption releases 10 times more than a class B flare (and 100 times more than class A) and so on. Within each letter class there is a finer scale from 1 to 9.
“The most powerful flare measured with modern methods was in 2003, during the last solar maximum, and it was so powerful that it overloaded the sensors measuring it. The sensors cut out at X28.
“This current flare is expected to be of a similar size as the Bastille Day Flare, which occurred on the 14th February 2000. That flare was one of the largest geomagnetic storms of the previous solar cycle, accompanied by a massive coronal mass ejection and shock which was initially traveling at a speed of ~1800 km/s.
“It was big enough to cause the earth’s magnetosphere to become extremely compressed and eroded (on the day-side), causing 3 geosynchronous satellites to enter the magnetosheath for an extended time period (3h). The Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) on NASA’s SOHO satellite found itself so bombarded by high flux from the sun that it became saturated and couldn’t record any useful readings.
“The Sun also sent Solar energetic particles (SEPs) towards Earth. Through a series of chemical reactions in our atmosphere, these SEP protons drastically diminished the upper-most areas of the ozone layer, a protective blanket mostly in the stratosphere that blocks life-threatening ultraviolet radiation from reaching the Earth. This did not, however, result in a significant impact on human health, especially considering that most of the ozone loss documented in this study occurs over the northern polar region, they are important scientifically.
“So, a general comment is that we should expect more or less a similar impact to the Earth.
“A very important question for us in relation to these flares of March 2012 is: has this March 2012 X5 flare produced a solar quake in the Sun? The Bastille Day flare did not generate a seismic event, but this one might have ignited a very big one. We will find the answer soon (the Monash University team works on this). If the flare generated a sunquake then our puzzle about why some flares produce quakes and other do not is even bigger.”
From the SMC UK
Dr Chris Davis, Reader in Space & Atmospheric Physics at the University of Reading and a co-ordinator of the Solar Storm Watch project, said:
“After a year of extreme inactivity, our Sun certainly has been trying to make its presence felt over the last couple of days. These latest eruptions are very fast; around 6 million km/hour and are heading straight towards Earth. The first of these storms has already arrived at Earth where it could upset radio communications, power supplies and even GPS navigation systems.
“Alongside the official forecasts, members of the public from around the world have been helping to test new prediction techniques to track these storms and predict their arrival at Earth. To participate, visit our website at www.solarstormwatch.com.”
Dr Jonathan Eastwood, Research Fellow in Space and Atmospheric Physics at Imperial College London, said:
“A solar eruption earlier this week launched a huge amount of material from the Sun’s atmosphere into space. This eruption (a ‘coronal mass ejection’) hit the Earth today, as predicted. At the moment, the Earth’s magnetic field is trying to deflect the solar material around the Earth, and scientists in the UK and around the world are monitoring the situation to see if our magnetic shield will hold up. There is a good chance that the protection it offers will break down in the next 24 hours, leading to a geomagnetic storm. According to the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, this could cause intermittent satellite navigation (GPS) and HF (high frequency) radio problems, especially in more polar regions, as well as bright auroral displays in northern regions.”
Martin Archer, Space Physicist at Imperial College London, said:
“Solar storms are more likely in the 11 year solar cycle during times of solar maximum, which is set to peak in 2013. Such flares or coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are essentially big packets of dense plasma with intense magnetic fields embedded within them. Due to these magnetic fields, they can interact with the Earth’s magnetic shield from solar particle radiation. Particles and energy can be injected in this process, which may result in beautiful aurora but they can also cause problems with communications technology, power stations and satellites as well as increase the radiation risks to astronauts and air crew flying close to the poles. It’s hard to tell what the effect of this approaching CME will be until we can measure its magnetic field orientation, which is only possible around an hour before its impact.
Dr Craig Underwood, Deputy Director of the Surrey Space Centre, University of Surrey said:
“Just after midnight UTC on March 6th there was a large solar flare which has resulted in a large Coronal Mass Ejection – a burst of energetic particles – heading for Earth.
“These started arriving yesterday, resulting in disturbed magnetic conditions at Earth, which if large enough, can lead to disruption of the national grid. Also there are very much increased levels of ionising particles affecting spacecraft, causing permanent damage to solar arrays and also affecting on-board digital systems. Aircraft may divert to routes which avoid high latitude regions – although this is a very expensive thing to do in terms of fuel usage, and is rarely necessary as the Earth’s atmosphere gives a very large measure of protection. We may expect to see spectacular “northern lights” – perhaps even as far south as the UK.
“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.
“Space engineers go to some lengths to ensure that spacecraft can continue to operate under these hostile conditions. Similarly, space scientists are working hard to try to understand the physics of these events, so that we may be able to give more warning of when such an event is likely to occur. Power engineers are always on the alert for such events, and are ready to act to protect our vital power supplies as much as is possible.”
Mark Gibbs, a space weather expert at the Met Office, said:
“A ‘solar storm’ is expected to reach Earth on Thursday and is most likely to arrive around midday. This follows increased activity on the Sun over recent days with a large Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) taking place on Wednesday morning.
“Working with our partners, British Geological Survey, through the Hazard Centre at the Met Office we have provided advice on the nature of this event so that government and industry can take steps to mitigate the potential impacts a geomagnetic storm may bring, for example to the airline and power supply industries and to GPS.
“The impact of this will mainly be in terms of a geomagnetic storm on Earth and we understand some airlines may re-direct flights from polar routes and that the power supply industry may take routine mitigation steps. This solar event may also increase the chances of seeing the aurora borealis or Northern Lights in the UK. Further information can be obtained from BGS or AuroraWatch http://bit.ly/z5aDKI. However it is expected to be rather cloudy in many places with the best chance of clearer spells in some eastern areas.
“However for the majority of people, a ‘solar storm’ of this magnitude will pass largely unnoticed.”
The Met Office has also a blog post which might be useful:
Dr Chris Bridges, Surrey Space Centre, University of Surrey said:
“The X5-category geomagnetic storm is a very large solar event and the data showed a considerable increase in the Earth’s magnetic field disturbance together with an increased proton flux in the Earth’s atmosphere. What this essentially means is that a few things such as the Earth’s magnetic field will change, allowing our atmosphere to swell or contract, meaning that a satellite’s orbit can change or be reduced. Satellites will also trap the high energy particles ejected from the storm too – which may cause satellite errors or malfunctions.
“Predicting our chaotic solar cycle has been a real challenge; especially for these large events. How they affect Earth and our satellites is an ongoing question but some auroras will probably be seen at high latitudes.”
Professor Alan Woodward, Department of Computing, University of Surrey said:
“As the 2012 Olympic approach we have a convergence of an event that is the most connected, computer intensive event, ever, with a record level of sunspot activity which typically leads to solar flares. We have the potential this year to see what planners call a “Black Swan” event: one that is unlikely but if it happens will have an extraordinary impact on our lives. The last similar event was the Japanese Tsunami which caused massive physical damage. This year we could see equally devastating results from the disappearance of our computer systems.
“For that very reason the military have developed so-called Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons that can shut down large areas without causing a great deal of physical damage. But what man can do, nature can do on a much larger scale, and the solar flares, which are in essence a gigantic electromagnetic storm, can have an effect on computers that dwarf the effects of an EMP weapon.
“Computers can be ‘hardened’ to withstand the effects of electrical interference but very few are. Even those in safety critical situation such as engine management systems on aircraft, or medical devices, are vulnerable. How often have you seen the signs to turn off your mobile phone as it may interfere? Now imagine the combined effects of billions of mobile phones all operating at once.
“Without computers the modern world would simply cease to function. Life as we know it would grind to a halt. It is therefore scary to know that these computers are remarkably susceptible to electronic interference which can bring about this situation.”