A record 14 weather and climate disasters, each causing more than $1 billion in damages, hit the United States last year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Now, just weeks into 2012, the Earth is in the midst of the largest solar storm in more than six years. But experts say there’s no reason to panic, and no, the sky isn’t falling.
On Sunday night, the sun sent a powerful solar flare, known as a coronal mass ejection, to Earth. With it came a burst of radiation and charged plasma, creating a fairly rare proton storm. NASA warned that the radiation could wreak havoc on satellites and global positioning systems (GPS), cause communication problems for airplanes and astronauts, lead to surges in power lines, and disrupt radio and TV signals.
Despite these warnings, W. Jeffrey Hughes, director of BU’s Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of astronomy, says the storm is not as significant as many media outlets have been making it out to be, but that larger storms are forecast for the near future.
BU Today spoke with Hughes about the current storm and how solar storm prediction services have improved in the last few years.
BU Today: Can you describe what has been happening?
Hughes: Just before midnight on Sunday, the sun had a solar flare, an eruption of sorts, which did two things. The first was that it released a big cloud of gas and a magnetic field that had been entrapped in the solar atmosphere. It was released towards Earth, because it happened on the side of the sun that was facing us. It also released a lot of particles that make up matter. Within an hour, some of them were here. So far, what’s been going on is that the Earth has been bathed in energetic protons coming from the sun. Yesterday morning that plasma and magnetic field finally got here, after about 36 hours of traveling. These things move at many hundreds of miles a second, not an hour. To any speed that humans are used to thinking about, the storm moved very fast, but to put it in perspective, the standard speed of the solar wind is 300 miles a second.
Why do you feel that the storm is not as big a deal as others are making it out to be?
I don’t think I’m alone in that. A little background: the sun has solar cycles, which means it gets active, then it quiets down, and then it gets active again, with a time period of about 11 years. So the last solar maximum was in 2002, so we should expect one next year.
In the meantime, the sun has been quieter than it has been for the last 100 years. The last time it got this quiet was about 1913. So we’ve gotten used to the sun not being active. This is the largest eruption on the sun for the last six years, but we expect the solar maximum to peak sometime next year, possibly midway through 2013.
So yes, the sun is building up; it should be doing this. The country’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service has a Space Weather Prediction Center that I work quite closely with. They are predicting this storm to be the lowest category of geomagnetic storm. They categorize them like we do hurricanes, one through five—five being the most severe. They are predicting this storm to be a level one geomagnetic storm. As 2013 and 2014 approach, we should get much more active storms. So if one does the hurricane analogy, it’s the first hurricane of the hurricane season and this one’s a category one. It’s barely more than a tropical storm, but you note it. It’s the first one of this solar storm season, and it’s respectable, but not a major one.
In the past, these storms have affected satellites and GPS devices. Should we anticipate that happening as a result of this storm?
With this particular storm, it’s not going to do much. I talked about the energetic protons, the radiation coming from the sun. It could do damage to things in space, particularly spacecraft electronics. These particles can penetrate into the interior of the spacecraft. One particle hitting the wrong part of the circuit could do nasty things. It’s probably affecting high-latitude plane flights. These particles are on in the polar regions, and it affects the ionosphere above the atmosphere, which affects radio communications. And planes aren’t allowed to fly over the polar routes if they don’t have good radio communication. So there may have been long-haul flights, maybe from Chicago to Hong Kong, which had to be rerouted.
In 2006, the federal Report of the Assessment Committee for the National Space Weather Program said that the nation’s solar storm forecasting capabilities were not where they should be. Is this still the case?
They have improved, and BU can take some credit for that. Up until recently we’ve never had computer models to try to predict what’s going to happen, whereas there are oodles of models that can predict where a hurricane is going to go and when it is going to happen. The first one we had a hand in helping to develop went operational at the Space Weather Prediction Center in October 2011. This model was able to predict to within an hour when this particular coronal mass injection, this thing that hit the Earth yesterday morning, was going to hit.
There have been many reports of auroras. Does the storm make it possible to see them?
Well, the best time to see them would have been last night, but you might still see some residual activity tonight. You need a clear sky, unobstructed by all of the Boston lights, but it’s worth a shot.