The waves of charged solar particles are the result of three solar flares directed at Earth in recent days, including the most powerful flare that has been observed since 2006. Larger solar flares can disrupt technology, including power grids, communications systems and orbital satellites. The northern lights (Aurora Borealis) may also be visible further south than is normally the case due to the eruptions, including from some of the northern parts of the UK.
“Our current view is that the effect of the solar flare is likely to reach Earth later today (Thursday GMT), possibly tomorrow morning,” said Alan Thomson, head of geomagnetism at the British Geological Survey (BGS). He also told BBC News: “In the scientific community, there’s a feeling that it’s not as intense as we first thought it might be. But it’s possible still that it could be a large enough event for us to see the northern lights in the UK.” However, current weather forecasts put a damper on that projection, as reports are suggesting cloudy conditions could obstruct views of the northern lights for the most part.
The US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said that three coronal mass ejections (CMEs) were en route as the result of solar flares on the 13th, 14th and 15th of February 2011. “The last of the three seems to be the fastest and may catch both of the forerunners about mid-to-late day tomorrow, February 17,” read a statement from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. Aurora Borealis or the northern lights could be seen further south than is normal under normal circumstances and conditions.
The flare recorded at 0156 GMT on 15 February was the strongest such event recorded in the four year period since 2006, according to the US space agency (NASA), which has been monitoring activity on the Sun for quite some time now. The event was classified as a so-called X-flare, the most intense type of this solar event. The source of all three of these solar events was reported to be sunspot 1158, which has been expanding rapidly in recent days. A week ago, sunspot 1158 didn’t exist. Now it is wider than the planet Jupiter and unleashing the strongest solar flares since Dec. 2006. Click on the arrow to witness the amazing 5-day development of this active region, courtesy of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory:
Solar flares are created by the sudden release of the magnetic energy stored in the Sun’s atmosphere. Their effects on our planet Earth can interfere with modern technology, such as the electrical power grids, communications systems and orbiting satellites, including satellite navigation and GPS signals.
Although scientists are expecting most geomagnetic activity to occur on Thursday, Chinese state media has already reported some disruption to shortwave radio communications in the south of the country.
Scientists will have around half an hour’s notice that the wave of charged particles is about to hit the Earth’s magnetic shield. This is taken from the point at which a NASA satellite called Ace (the Advanced Composition Explorer) registers the solar radiation on its instruments: “We’re sitting waiting for that event to happen,” said Dr Thomson. Researchers say that our Sun has been awakening after a period of several years of lower than normal activity, and is expected to increase over the next couple years and peak in 2013.
So if you are having trouble with your communications systems, GPS or other navigational systems, or the power goes out, the most likely culprit for these turns of events may be the latest solar flare eruption in February 13, 14, 15 2011.