Space weather warning: Solar flare could affect electrical grids, GPS systems


UPDATE: NOAA reports that the magnetic strength of this storm was less than the peak potential that could have initiated a strong geomagnetic storm as it arrived at Earth. Forecasters are downgrading it to a watch for December 10th and 11th.

ST. LOUIS – There’s a space weather warning for Earth. The planet is under a geomagnetic storm watch. And what’s happening on the sun could affect everyone on Earth.

For the last three years, our sun has been fairly quiet. But two days ago, the sun sent out a big solar flare known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). The expulsion contained billions of tons of plasma and magnetic field.

The sun gets stirred about every 11 years.

Like Earth, the sun has a north and south pole; one is positive and one negative. During those 11 years, the magnetic poles switch, which sets off all sorts of eruptions that are rocketed towards Earth.

Bill Murtagh, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association space weather expert, described what occurs on the sun as those magnetic poles switch.

“During the process, the magnetic lines, if you can picture them getting twisted and distorted during the reversal process, it’s kind of like take a rubber band and twisting and twisting and finally it snaps,” Murtagh said.

The snap is a solar flare. The material from the sun comes in contact with our magnetic field and then the problems begin here on Earth.

It’s amazing what those solar flares can do here on the planet. Experts say all that solar activity has the potential of causing voltage irregularities, even blackouts for power companies, like what happened to Canada in 1989.

“The folks in the city of Montreal and all of Quebec went black,” Murtagh said.

The power was off for 9 to 10 hours.

And while there’s no electrocution danger for people from the solar activity, your GPS system could be affected by solar flares.

“It starts creating problems with the accuracy of the GPS,” Murtagh said.

There is a positive result from geomagnetic storms. They create the beautiful northern lights. A strong enough storm means the lights could be seen as far south as northern Missouri or Chicago. Rich Heuermann, a spokesman for the St. Louis Astronomical Society, said decades ago he saw northern lights from Gray Summit, Missouri.

“It certainly made it a memorable evening because it was so unexpected,” Heuermann said.

The NOAA expert said some solar storms have been so powerful northern lights were seen in Cuba and Central America. Some people believe the flares can mess up your cell phone connection. The man at NOAA indicated that would only happen if your call was relying on a satellite.

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