Here comes the sun(storm)

A solar eruption could cause electrical and communications woes for the next two weeks

A series of solar eruptions on the sun that began this week prompted electricity generation companies and others to pay closer-than-normal attention to their systems for any signs of service disruptions.

The events on the sun began Oct. 22, according to a statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Environment Center (SEC) in Boulder, Colo., where scientists spotted large amounts of intense solar energy in the form of solar flares heading toward Earth.

Over the next two weeks, electric utility companies, satellite operators and users of high-frequency radio systems -- including jet aircraft and amateur radio enthusiasts -- may be in for sporadic service disruptions as a series of energy-laden flares head toward Earth.

Cell phone and pager communications might also be negatively affected by the naturally-occurring solar activity, but it's more of a problem for high-frequency radio systems, said Mike Weaver, an SEC space weather forecaster. The disruptions are caused by complex magnetic structures, or sunspots, erupting on the sun and sending bursts of energy through space to the Earth, he said.

Strong patterns of solar activity such as this one usually occur during the sun's "maximum," or active period in its 11-year solar cycle, he said. This time, it's happening during a "solar minimum," when activity is traditionally low, Weaver said. The last solar maximum was from 2000 to 2001, and the next one isn't expected until around 2011, he said.

"This is a major event for us for this time of the solar cycle," he said. "It's uncommon."

Barbara McGehan, an SEC spokeswoman, said the agency constantly tracks conditions in space so power companies, businesses, the military and others can be advised of conditions that might affect them. "Our job is to forecast like you'd forecast a hurricane, to let people know," McGehan said.

According to the SEC, the solar activity on Wednesday generated a "coronal mass ejection" that headed toward Earth, bringing with it strong geomagnetic storms that could cause communications disruptions. Additional major eruptions could occur during the next two weeks, the agency said.

Solar Eruption
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Credit: the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO)
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Ray Dotter, a spokesman for Valley Forge, Pa.-based PJM Interconnection, a regional electrical energy transmission organization serving power companies in seven Eastern states, said his group notified its members of the solar activity so they can monitor it.

"The problem for the electric business is that [solar] flares or disturbances can create a current in the ground, which is normally neutral, that can affect large transformers or equipment at generating stations," Dotter said. To prevent problems, generating company operators have to carefully monitor their facilities during solar storms so they can make needed corrections to prevent power grid failures, he said.

For amateur high-frequency radio enthusiasts, the timing of the solar activity couldn't be worse. Tomorrow is the first day of the annual CQ Worldwide DX SSB Contest, in which ham radio users around the world compete to contact the largest number of ham radio enthusiasts in a 48-hour period. The solar activity will likely cause problems for the ham operators competing in the contest.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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