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TMCNet:  Biggest solar storm in years has not yet caused problems [Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Texas]

[March 09, 2012]

Biggest solar storm in years has not yet caused problems [Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Texas]

(Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 09--After one of the strongest solar storms in years hit Earth early Thursday, experts say the planet has been lucky, so far.

Hours after the storm arrived, officials said there were no reports of problems with power grids, GPS, satellites or other technologies that are often disrupted by solar storms.

That still can change as the storm shakes the planet's magnetic field in ways that could disrupt technology but also spread colorful Northern Lights.

Michael Giesselmann, professor and chair of Texas Tech's department of electrical and computer engineering, said he is not very concerned about the storm affecting Lubbock. Damages are more common in locations with high latitudes.

"Maybe in Canada or Sweden, where you have long transmission lines at high latitudes, that's typically where the dangers are biggest something bad happens," Giesselmann said. "This isn't the strongest storm. At this point, I do not expect any trouble here. We're fairly far south here." Solar storms can bring additional radiation around the north and south poles -- a risk that sometimes forces airlines to reroute flights.

Giesselmann said the storm could disrupt the electric grid, induce currents in pipelines and potentially damage satellites. Although the storm could affect electronics, aviation and navigation systems, flying shouldn't affect passengers.

"The way I understand it, if you were to fly on an airline today, I wouldn't worry about it," he said.

Effects people could notice include GPS accuracy and satellite television reception, Giesselman said. If a person has Direct Satellite TV, or a dish that looks directly at a satellite, and the satellite gets damaged in the storm, it may affect television reception, he said. GPS devices may be slightly off, he added.

"For the average driver in Lubbock driving this afternoon, maybe the GPS is just a tad bit less accurate, but you would have a really hard time really noticing that," he said. "If we put all our scientific equipment out there and tried to measure it, maybe we could measure something, but the typical GPS user would not be noticeably affected." Early indications show the storm is about 10 times stronger than the normal solar wind that hits Earth.

It started with a massive solar flare Tuesday evening and grew as it raced outward from the sun, expanding like a giant soap bubble, scientists said. The charged particles were expected to hit at 4 million mph.

The storm struck about 5 a.m. in a direction that causes the least amount of problems, Joe Kunches, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center, told The Associated Press.

"It's not a terribly strong event. It's a very interesting event," he said.

Susan Holtz, Tech Department of Physics faculty member and instructor of astronomy, said solar storms are not a rare occurrence as the Earth approaches solar maximum, which happens every 11 years, causing the magnetic poles of the sun to reverse.

Many factors of the storm determine the damage, or lack thereof.

"It depends on how the storm hits, how it hits the earth, and probably a little bit of luck," she said.

Forecasters can predict the speed a solar storm travels and its strength, but the north-south orientation is the wild card. And this time, Earth got dealt a good card with a northern orientation, which is "pretty benign," Kunches said. If it had been southern, that would have caused the most damaging technological disruption and biggest auroras.

But that storm orientation can change, Kunches said.

After consulting data from the NOAA on Thursday morning, Holtz said the storm looked level. It wasn't getting better or worse.

"It's staying the same, the best I can tell from the data," she said. "My expectation is that we will not have much of a problem, but problems can crop up." Storms like this start with sun spots. Then comes an initial solar flare of subatomic particles that resemble a filament coming out of the sun. That part from this storm hit Earth only minutes after the initial burst, bringing radio and radiation disturbances.

After that comes the coronal mass ejection, which looks like a growing bubble and takes a couple days to reach Earth.

For North America, the good part of a solar storm -- the one that creates more noticeable auroras or Northern Lights -- peaks Thursday evening. Auroras could dip as far south as the Great Lakes states, Kunches said, but a full moon will make them harder to see.

Holtz said a solar storm like this one is similar to bad weather on Earth -- it can be bad, she said, causing billions of dollars of damage, taking out satellites, disrupting communication, or it can be not so bad. Space weather is hard to predict, she said.

Although it's unlikely a solar storm knocks out satellites or causes power outages, it is possible, Holtz said.

In 1989, a strong solar storm knocked out the power grid in Quebec, causing 6 million people to lose power.

Holtz said the 1989 storm could have been a lot worse. The damage was repairable.

A storm like the current one may have gone unnoticed 100 years ago, Holtz added. There's more attention on solar storms now because of society's use of technology and satellite communication. Before the space age, Holtz said, there were no satellites. Now that people rely on them, solar weather could create havoc for satellites and power grids, she said.

"(This storm) is a reminder that at any time ... we have a possibility of having a severe storm, " Holtz said. "There is a potential one of these coronal mass ejections could wipe out a significant amount of power in the U.S, We're talking about taking out the transformers. If it did that for a large patch, say the Midwest, power grids would go down. It would be days before repair because we'd have to make new parts to repair power grids.

"I think that's why people are focusing on it, is that this isn't a bad storm. We've had some in the past. ... These storms have the potential -- just like rotating clouds have the potential to produce tornadoes -- to produce damage on the planet. This is space weather. Space weather also has a potential of affecting us." (The Associated Press contributed to this story.) To comment on this story: brittany.hoover@lubbockonline.com -- 766-8722 leesha.faulkner@lubbockonline.com -- 766-8706 ___ (c)2012 the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (Lubbock, Texas) Visit the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (Lubbock, Texas) at www.lubbockonline.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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