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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Solar Storm Could Disrupt Modern Technology

An X1 solar flare in a new active region on the sun, region 1429. It has let loose two M-class flares and one X-class so far. (AP/NASA)This extreme ultraviolet wavelength image provided by NASA shows a solar flare. An impressive solar flare is heading toward Earth and could disrupt power grids, GPS and airplane flights. (AP/NASA)A solar flare headed towards Earth. (AP/NASA)

The largest solar storm in years is battering the earth Thursday with particles traveling at four million miles-per-hour with the potential to shake the planet’s magnetic field and disrupt utility grids, satellite networks and make GPS less accurate.

The storm could also trigger communication problems and additional radiation around the north and south poles, a risk that has caused airlines to reroute some flights. The storm will also produce more noticeable auroras or Northern Lights that will peak tonight and could dip as far south as the Great Lakes states.

“So imagine you have a rubber band, these are the magnetic field lines near the Sun’s surface,” says Kelly Beatty senior contributing editor with Sky and Telescope Magazine.

“Now let it go! That is essentially how a solar flare happens. And when that happens, think of that as the explosion, the Sun sends a gigantic ball, a shockwave of gas and magnetic field toward us. In this case, it just takes 36 hours to reach us, traveling at millions of miles an hour.”

But, Beatty says we don’t have to duck just yet.

“The good news is that those magnetic fields have to handshake with the Earth’s magnetic fields, so that wasn’t quite lined up, and we ended up dodging a bullet,” says Beatty.

Astronomers warn that more storms could be on the way.


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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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