Flights rerouted as solar storm hits Earth

2012-01-25 07:47

Washington – Solar radiation from a massive sun storm – the largest in nearly a decade – collided with the Earth’s atmosphere yesterday, prompting an airline to reroute flights and skywatchers to seek out spectacular light displays.

US carrier Delta Air Lines said it had adjusted flight routes for transpolar journeys between Asia and the US to avoid problems caused by the radiation storm, a spokesperson said.

Nasa, a US agency responsible for the nation’s civilian space programme, confirmed that the coronal mass ejection (CME) began colliding with Earth’s magnetic field at about 10am yesterday, adding that the storm was now being considered the largest since October 2003.

Radiation storms are not harmful to humans, on Earth at least, according to the US space agency. They can, however, affect satellite operations and short wave radio.

The storm’s radiation, likely to continue bombarding Earth’s atmosphere through today, and its possible disruption to satellite communications in the polar regions prompted the flight rerouting, airline officials said.

Atlanta-based Delta, the world’s second largest airline, said “a handful” of routes had their journey adjusted “based on potential impact” of the solar storm on communications equipment, spokesperson Anthony Black said.

Routes from Hong Kong, Shanghai (China) and Seoul (South Korea) took a more southerly route after the solar flare erupted on Sunday.

The airline said it would continue to monitor solar activity before return flights to their normal routes.

Due to the unusual intensity of the photons raining on Earth, the spectacular aurora borealis – the stunning “Northern Lights” display – which is often seen closer to the Arctic pole at this time of the year, has been seen as far south as Scotland and northern England, and at lower latitudes in the US.

The event started late Sunday with a moderate-sized solar flare that erupted right near the centre of the Sun, said Doug Biesecker, a physicist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Weather Prediction Centre.

“The flare itself was nothing spectacular, but it sent off a very fast coronal mass ejection travelling four million miles (6.4 million km) per hour,” he said.

Space weather watchers said the best aurora sightings are normally around midnight local (US) time.

Rob Stammes, who runs the Lofoten Polar Light Centre in Lofoten, Norway, said the CME’s arrival yesterday had produced a surge in ground currents outside his laboratory.

“This could be a happy day for many aurora watchers,” he told aurora tracker website

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