Solar Flare Heads for Earth

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By Dave Hennen, CNN Senior Meteorologist

(CNN) — U.S. politics had its “Super Tuesday” yesterday, and so did the sun, says Joseph Kunches from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.

That’s because the sun had a coronal mass ejection, involving massive amounts of energy and charged particles shooting out of the sun. Coronal mass ejections are often associated with solar flares, and they can cause problems if directed at Earth, as was the case over the last couple of days.

NOAA calls this particular coronal mass ejection the strongest since December 2006. The equivalent of 10 billion tons of highly charged particles are hurtling at a rate of 3 million to 4 million miles an hour toward Earth. The peak of this latest solar storm is expected to hit Thursday morning and gradually diminish by Friday morning.

The sun is currently in a cycle of increased sun spots. This is part of an 11-year cycle that is expected to peak over the next year. The magnetic field in a sunspot stores energy that is released in solar flares. These flares are intense bursts of radiation that get ejected into space.

NOAA measures various aspects of the ejections that occur. Four main components define solar activity: solar flares, coronal mass ejections, high-speed solar wind and solar energetic particles.

As an event occurs, some of the particles reach Earth almost immediately. These highly charged particles are more of a threat to spacecraft and astronauts than to us on the planet’s surface. The bulk plasma from the coronal mass ejection can take between 30 and 72 hours to reach the earth. This can cause interruptions to power grids, GPS systems, and some flights that are near the poles.

The one positive outcome is the brilliant auroras (Northern and Southern Lights). These occur as the particles from the ejection interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, creating colorful displays.

NOAA has a chart that classifies these solar storms. This latest coronal mass ejection is forecast to rate as a “strong G3” geomagnetic storm, a measure of the disturbances in the geomagnetic field that helps protect the Earth from dangerous particles, and a “severe S4” solar radiation storm which is a measure of radiation that occurs when the numbers of energetic particles increases.

The Space Prediction Center expects that we are in a favorable pattern for at least the next week to potentially bring more solar storms to the earth. What is not known is the magnitude of future events. What is expected is quite a show from the Northern Lights Wednesday night and Thursday night, which may be visible as far south as Michigan and Illinois.

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