Solar flares can wipe out communications, power grids, affect short wave communication and alter the orbit of satellites. Heightened solar activity brings with it risks for military and airline communication, GPS signals and cell phones.
Because of the affect solar flares can have on our planet, scientists are working on ways to predict solar activity. Solar flares develop around the raging storms on the sun’s surface; these explosions of energy and magnetic force generally originate in magnetically active regions of the sun around sun spot groupings. There remains much to be asked about what causes them but some believe they are related to the sun’s magnetic field, others link solar flares to other celestial phenomenon such as planetary alignments.
Sun spots are dark blotches on the sun. The average size of a sunspot is about the size of our planet; some are much larger. They aren’t static; they appear and disappear all the time; a typical sunspot lasting just a few days.
In March 1989, a solar storm left six million people in Canada without power for almost nine hours. In 2003 the biggest solar explosion ever recorded erupted; this caused no damage to the earth.
In December 2006 a violent explosion in the sun’s atmosphere sent a solar flare hurling past the earth at over one million kilometers an hour. This solar radio burst caused widespread problems on GPS receivers.
According to Sten Odenwald in the Washington Post (March 1999) space weather varies with the eleven year sunspot cycle. “The more sunspots, the more storms and the more voluminous the solar wind.”
In January 2008 came evidence of the first sunspots in a new cycle, appearing in the sun’s Northern Hemisphere. Solar physicist Douglas Biesecker of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Centre described this as “like the first robin of spring … It’s an early omen of solar storms that will gradually increase over the next few years.”
Early indications that space weather is worsening are usually the dramatic and increased aurora display in Arctic regions. This new 11 year cycle has been building up gradually and will reach its maximum by 2011 or 2012 although destructive storms may occur at any time.
In September 1859 skies all over the earth erupted in red, green and purple auroras, telegraph systems worldwide went crazy with sparks being discharged and telegraph operators receiving electric shocks after a huge solar flare. Some believe these kind of events could soon be repeated.
Scientists are now working on ways to monitor and predict ‘space weather’ or solar flares in an effort to supply advance warning of their arrival on earth. It is predicted that over the next few years there will be an increase in solar storms as according to NASA scientist Richard Fisher, “The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity.”
Amateur astronomers are being requested to play their part in helping to track these spectacular storms through space. www.solarstormwatch.com has been developed to encourage people to share their discoveries. “We encourage everyone to track these spectacular storms through space. These storms are a potential radiation hazard for spacecraft and astronauts alike and together we hope to provide advanced warning of their arrival at Earth.”