Strong solar storm won't fry electronics

Solar flare

A strong solar flare on the surface of the sun is seen in this image from NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph taken Jan. 28, 2014

Credit: Reuters/NASA
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Back-to-back solar flares, including one that received the highest classification of "X-Class," are striking the earth. U.S. scientists say electronics shouldn't be hurt, but there could be some GPS issues.

The larger of the two coronal mass ejections (CME) will hit sometime between late Friday morning and mid-day. The first CME arrived Thursday night.

These storms may cause radio communications problems and GPS signal degradation as well as lead to some voltage irregularities in the power grids in the northern latitudes of the U.S.

But the problems "are expected to be manageable and not cause any major disruptions to power transmission," said Thomas Berger, director of the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center.

Electric grid operators have been notified, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency "just in case," said Berger, at a press briefing Thursday.

The caution displayed here is due to the rarity of two geomagnetic storms arriving so close to one another. On the geomagnetic storm scale of 1-5, the CMEs are expected to hit at either a G2, or moderate force, to G3, a strong geomagnetic storm.

Scientists aren't sure what may happen if these storms interact in a way that amplifies their strength. Berger said they cannot rule out a storm perhaps as high as a G4, or severe, particularly in regions where the interactions with the earth's magnetic field are strongest.

Solar flares can damage the power grid and electronic technologies. The U.S. government regards the possibility of major solar storm as a "black swan," event that could be calamitous. In 1989, a geomagnetic storm knocked out the power grid in Quebec.

The impact of powerful solar storms is on the federal public policy radar; it's mentioned at hearings, but gets little action.

At a U.S. House hearing earlier this year, Peter Vincent Pry, who advises Congress on homeland security issues, said a great geomagnetic storm could produces effects similar to an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) generated by a nuclear weapon that "could collapse power grids everywhere on the planet and destroy EHV (extra high voltage) transformers and other electronic systems that would require years to repair or replace."

But with the storm due Friday, "there is no real concern for electronics down here on the ground," said William Murtagh, program coordinator at the space weather center. They do know of some studies underway that are assessing vulnerabilities of electronics, essentially at the higher altitudes and latitudes, and they are looking at the potential impact on avionics, he said.

The major worry is a repeat of the 1859 solar storm called the "Carrington Event." That storm produced Aurora Borealis lights so bright that people could read at night, but it also hurt the only telecommunications system in existence, the telegraph.

A contemporary news wire story carried a Canadian telegraph company's story about the storm's impact. "So completely were the wires under the influence of the Aurora Borealis, it was found utterly impossible to communicate between the telegraph stations, and the line had to be closed. The same difficulties prevailed as far South as Washington," it said.

The CME that struck the earth in 1859 may have traveled the 93 million mile distance from the Sun in as little as little as 15 or 17 hours. By contrast, the latest storms will take some 40 hours or more.

Aurora Borealis are expected to be visible Friday night, if you live in New England, the northern states to Washington Oregon, and away from the bright city lights.

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