Georgia residents miss solar storm’s big show
by Seth Borenstein
Associated Press Writer
March 09, 2012 12:58 AM | 2218 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
WASHINGTON — The largest solar storm in five years arrived on Earth early Thursday, promising to shake the globe’s magnetic field while expanding the Northern Lights.

The storm started with a massive solar flare earlier in the week and grew as it raced outward from the sun, expanding like a giant soap bubble, scientists said. The particles are moving at 4 million miles an hour.

For North America, the good part of a solar storm — the one that creates more noticeable auroras or Northern Lights — was to peak Thursday night, and the effects could linger through this morning.

But David Dundee, astronomy program manager at Tellus Science Museum in Cartersville, said Thursday that it was unlikely people in Georgia saw anything in the night’s sky, mainly because we are further south, but also partly because of expected clouds.

“Atomic particles are hurled off the sun in these big explosions, and those particles get trapped by the magnetic field of Earth,” Dundee said. “If you’re in Alaska or Canada, you have a higher frequency of seeing particles. In big storms, auroras have been observed as far south as Miami, so it’s not out of the question that we could see something, but it’s not likely.”

The storm is part of the sun’s normal 11-year cycle, which is supposed to reach peak storminess next year. Solar storms don’t harm people, but they can disrupt technology. During the last peak around 2002, experts learned that GPS was vulnerable to solar outbursts.

Solar storms have three ways they can disrupt technology on Earth: with magnetic, radio and radiation emissions. This is an unusual situation, when all three types of solar storm disruptions are likely to be strong, Kunches said. That makes it the strongest overall since December 2006.

But on Thursday, no immediate disruptions to utility grids, satellite networks or GPS services were seen.

Astronomers say the sun has been relatively quiet for some time. And this storm, while strong, may seem fiercer because Earth has been lulled by several years of weak solar activity.

Storms like this start with sun spots, NASA solar physicist David Hathaway said.

Then comes an initial solar flare of subatomic particles that resemble a filament coming out of the sun. That part already 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.

The sun is a medium-size star, and Dundee said other stars have similar storm cycles.

— News Editor Kim Isaza contributed to this report
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