Two gigantic solar flares that erupted on the surface of the Sun on Wednesday night have produced magnificent, jaw-dropping imagery and movies of our star’s unpredictable might, but the impact on Earth could be decidedly less enjoyable. The resulting particle blasts are expected to strike our planet at around midnight or early Thursday morning and pose risks to high frequency radios, GPS, and power grids, according to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The two flares occurred one after the other on Wednesday night, with the first coming at 7 pm EST and the second just over an hour later, at 8:15. The initial flare was the larger and stronger of the two, classified as an X5.4, while the second was a bit smaller at X5.1, although both were among the strongest type of flare according to the international, five letter scale used by space scientists. (The scale advances in strength as follows: A, B, C, M and X). Both were substantially stronger than the M.87 class flare that occurred in late January and produced stunning solar vistas of its own.
See a composite video of the two latest flares generated by imagery captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), an unmanned spacecraft whose sole function is to monitor the Sun, snapping images every 12 seconds. Both flares occurred in an especially active region of the sun dubbed AR 1429.
Both flares were likely to be larger than the size of Earth itself, spewing billions tons of gas and other stellar matter into space along with waves of radioactive particles, events known as “coronal mass ejections,” or CMEs. The larger CME is traveling away from the Sun (and toward Earth) at 1,300 miles per second and the second at upwards of 1,100 miles per second, according to NASA. They’re expected to strike Earth at about 1:25 AM EST, plus or minus several hours, the agency said, causing a geomagnetic storm in the atmosphere that will be especially felt — and seen — at higher northern latitudes.
It’s the resulting storm that will prove to be the biggest source of potential trouble for communications and power back on Earth, according to Rodney Viereck, director of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Testbed, located in Boulder, Colorado.
“This is a significant storm,” Viereck told TPM in a telephone interview.
Viereck explained that power grid operators would face the greatest challenge from the storm, as the particle blast would see “lots of voltage applied externally to their power lines.”
Power grid operators and utilities in the Northeast are most susceptible to the effects of the storm, according to Viereck, due to the fact that the natural ground conductivity of the Earth itself is stronger in the region, and thus already places an increased load on power lines there.
However, Viereck said that based on information provided to the grids by his agency and NASA, many had already begun taking precautionary measures of reducing their capacity below peak in order to handle the sudden influx of voltage when it eventually arrives.
“We’ve been telling them what’s coming and they’ve been preparing their systems accordingly,” Viereck said.
Viereck additionally said that the storm would likely make GPS communications slightly more inaccurate (pinpointing locations within 60 feet instead of 10, for example), as well as disrupting high-frequency radio communications used by airliners and emergency response operators. However, again, in these cases, the appropriate people have been warned and are taking steps to prepare for the coming particle blasts, with airlines re-routing flights away from the North Pole and with the military already relying on dual frequency GPS.
As far as the rest of us, Viereck said that if located in latitudes as far south as upstate New York (about the mid 40s and above), people should be on the lookout for a specular display of Northern Lights (aurora borealis) around midnight or shortly before or after.
“If and when [the storm] arrives, there will be several hours of good auroral activities,” Viereck said.
There will only be more spectacular displays and solar flares in the months and next few years to come, as the Sun is approaching “solar maximum,” a period of increased magnetic bundles on the surface of the Sun called sunspots and corresponding intensified activity, which occurs roughly every 11 years on a regular solar cycle.
The Sun is expected to experience solar maximum in 2013 or 2014, with more frequent and stronger events leading up to the maximum and the strongest flares possibly occurring during the declination period, according to Viereck.
“Most very very large events occur during declining phase,” Viereck told TPM. “We anticipate seeing such events all the way through 2015 and 2016. This is by no means is the biggest we’ll see during this solar cycle.”
The last time a flare of such size and strength or greater occurred was back on August 9, 2011, when the Sun spewed an X6.9 flare, NASA reported.
chart by Clayton Ashley