Growing solar storm about to smack Earth

2012-03-07 20:49

Washington - An impressive solar flare is heading toward Earth and could disrupt power grids, satellite navigating systems and aircraft flights.

Forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Centre said the sun erupted on Tuesday evening and the effects should start smacking Earth late on Thursday morning, close 05:00 GMT. They say it is the biggest in five years and growing.

The magnetic storm has the potential to trip electrical power grids. Its radio emissions can disrupt global positioning systems to make them less accurate. It also could damage satellites.

Scientists said communication problems and radiation from the storm will probably force aircraft to avoid flying over the north and south poles.

Colourful auroras may be more visible.

"Space weather has gotten very interesting over the past 24 hours," said Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The fuss began late on Sunday at an active region on the sun known as 1429, with a big solar flare that was associated with a burst of solar wind and plasma known as a coronal mass ejection that hurtled in Earth's direction.

Another solar flare and CME followed at 00:24 GMT on March 7, setting off a strong geomagnetic and solar radiation storm, both at level three on a five-step scale.

Strongest in years

The solar flares alone caused brief high frequency radio blackouts that have now passed.

But the ensuing space storm will probably give viewers in Central Asia a prime look at the northern lights on Thursday night, in addition to disrupting some of Earthlings' most prized gadgets, Kunches said.

The storm is probably "the strongest one since December 2006," Kunches said, noting, however, that the Earth experienced a stronger radio blackout last August.

"But en masse, if you put it all together with the geomagnetic effects and the solar radiation effects, I would put it on par with one at the end of the last solar cycle which was over five years ago."

Satellites, power girds and even astronauts aboard the International Space Station could be affected by the radiation storm, which may cause them to seek shelter in better protected parts of the orbiting lab as they have in the past.

"We have been talking to the commercial airlines and we know that some have already taken actions to reroute, to go further away from the poles," Kunches added.

And more such storms could follow in the coming days because region 1429 is expected to stay active, he said.

- AP
Read more on:    noaa  |  space
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