Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Shields Up: Why Last Week’s Solar Storm Was a Dud

An interesting article here about last week's solar storm, why it was a bit of a 'fizzle', what has happened in the past and what may happen in the future. I particularly like the last line below:

A strong flare would send ultraviolet and X-ray radiation to the sunlit side of the Earth, ionizing the upper atmosphere and potentially shutting down GPS satellites. Losing GPS would cause chaos in more than just car navigation systems, Bogdan said.

“GPS is involved in everything we do,” he said, including financial transactions. Prices fluctuate so quickly that traders need a time stamp accurate to a millionth of a second every time they buy or sell something. Every time you swipe your credit card at the gas station or buy a bag of oranges, Bogdan said, it goes through a GPS satellite.

Ten to 20 minutes after the flare, a burst of high-energy protons would enter the Earth’s magnetic field at the poles, causing processing errors in other satellites.

About half an hour later, the hot cloud of plasma that the sun spit out with the flare would bump into the Earth’s magnetic field. If it’s strong enough, the plasma’s magnetic field can induce currents in electric transmission lines, which could cause widespread blackouts. The most powerful solar flare in recorded history, the Carrington flare in September 1859, sent currents through telegraph wires and even set a few buildings on fire.

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