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August 5, 2011

Solar storm smacks Earth; aurora possible

The biggest solar eruptions to date of the current solar cycle have crossed the solar system and smacked into the Earth's magnetic field on Friday afternoon. The collision of solar particles with the Earth's atmosphere could trigger the aurora borealis, or "Northern Lights" tonight.

"My estimate is we will probably get aurorae in the northern tier of the U.S.," said Brian J. Anderson, a research physicist at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab near Laurel. "We might be able to see it in the Baltimore-Washington area if it [the magnetic field in the solar storm] turns due south."

Coronal Mass Ejection Aug. 4, 2011That's not a guarantee, he cautioned. "If the magnetic field doesn't cooperate, this thing could be a dud... That happens half the time."

The sun is currently on the upswing of its 11-year solar activity cycle, and after a long, unusually quiet period at the solar "minimum," eruptions of solar particles and magnetic energy are becoming more common.

The website reported that a large sunspot on the sun, numbered 1261, has hurled out three large flares in recent days, the latest on Thursday. The flares were imaged by NASA'a twin STEREO spacecraft. And as the blast of solar particles and magnetic energy, called a coronal mass ejection (CME) sped toward Earth, they were measured by the SOHO and Advanced Compositions Explorer (ACE) spacecraft.

"The first of these events, the plasma associated with it, the magnetic cloud, arrived yesterday at about 6 p.m.," Anderson said on Friday afternoon around 4 p.m. "The second one, the first hint of it arrived about two hours ago. Then the major piece of it arrived about an hour ago" as measured by instruments in geosynchronous Earth orbit and on the ground.

This kind of solar storm, rated a medium-sized "M-class" flare, can set the Earth's magnetic field ringing like a bell, accelerating ions and adding solar particles to the flow of energy around the planet. That can disturb the Earth's ionosphere and disrupt shortwave communications. It can also disrupt or disable communications and GPS satellites and electric grids. The solar blast can expand the Earth's atmosphere and bring down space junk from low orbits, and disturb the orbits of working satellites. It can also raise Aurora seen from Int'l Space Stationradiation levels aboard manned spacecraft and trigger northern lights in far northern and southern latitudes.

Analysts at the Goddard Space Flight Center said the CME has compressed the Earth's magnetic field on the sunward side of the planet to near the altitude of geosynchronous satellites, potentially exposing communications satellites to the solar wind. That could trigger outages. 

"We are seeing enhancement of the electric currents in the atmosphere as indicated by magnetic field readings in polar regions," Sullivan said. There may be more effects noted in the next day or two. "We're in the early stages of this event."

Cloudy skies and high humidity would, of course, make it impossible to observe any aurorae that do occur. But there will likely be more opportunities ahead.

"In a solar cycle there are perhaps 10 or 20 events of this size," Anderson said. "This is not a once-in-a-century type of thing. I'd say it's the first really strong one we're seeing out of this solar cycle."

Anderson is currently engaged in a research project called AMPERE, funded by the National Science Foundation. He is measuring solar-induced electric currents surrounding the Earth, using equipment on board 70 satellites flown by the Iridium satellite telephone system. In time, he said, he hopes the technology can be used to provide commercial interests, such as electric utilities, with site-specific warnings on potential impacts from solar storms.

(PHOTO: Top: Solar Dynamics Observatory, Aug. 4, 2011; Bottom: Aurora seen from Int'l Space Station, NASA/ISS, May 2010))

Posted by Frank Roylance at 4:18 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Sky Notes, Sky Watching



Nuclear plants without grid power for a month are meltdown candidates and can spew radiation downwind.

See the Aesop Institute website for maps worth a few thousand words.

The damage would be much worse than a nuclear attack.

Mobilizing to minimize it can unite the nation, revitalize the economy and generate millions of jobs.

Why not begin on Labor Day?

This is precisely the sort of even that should cause the FAA to reconsider the whole project of abandoning land based flight navigation.

Sub: CME effects- Earth Planet-Life Support
Space Sciientists seem to have lost a decade of time in not getting prepared to monitor -insipte of ESA-cluster decade
mission since 2000.
Can they wake-up to reality assessment now ?

A nice HD video of the northern lights as they were seen during a strong geomagnetic storm can be seen at

Preparedness, not panic or fear, are the operative words.

People need to prepare for the financial and insurance-related impacts of calamitous events including fires, hurricanes, explosions, earthquakes, floods, thefts, and other unpredictable emergencies.

What If You Lost it All? Here’s a link to a DocuHome home inventory and it’s free...

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About Frank Roylance
This site is the Maryland Weather archive. The current Maryland Weather blog can be found here.
Frank Roylance is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He came to Baltimore from New Bedford, Mass. in 1980 to join the old Evening Sun. He moved to the morning Sun when the papers merged in 1992, and has spent most of his time since covering science, including astronomy and the weather. One of The Baltimore Sun's first online Web logs, the Weather Blog debuted in October 2004. In June 2006 Frank also began writing comments on local weather and stargazing for The Baltimore Sun's print Weather Page. Frank also answers readers’ weather queries for the newspaper and the blog. Frank Roylance retired in October 2011. Maryland Weather is now being updated by members of The Baltimore Sun staff

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