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Solar Storm Fizzles, But BU Prof. Expects Worst Still To Come

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IN SPACE - MARCH 6: In this handout from NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a X5.4 solar flare, the largest in five years, erupts from the sun's surface March 6, 2012. According to reports, particles from the flare are suppose to reach earth early March 7, possibly disrupting technology such as GPS system, satellite networks and airline flights. (Photo by NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) via Getty Images)

IN SPACE – MARCH 6: In this handout from NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), a X5.4 solar flare, the largest in five years, erupts from the sun’s surface March 6, 2012. According to reports, particles from the flare are suppose to reach earth early March 7, possibly disrupting technology such as GPS system, satellite networks and airline flights. (Photo by NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) via Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS/AP) – While the latest solar storm has not created anything approaching electronic Armageddon, the worst may be yet to come.

The storm that seemed to be more fizzle than fury, at its peak, was the most potent solar storm since 2004, space weather forecasters said.

No power outages or other technological disturbances were reported from the solar storm that started to peter out late Friday morning.

Solar storms, which can’t hurt people, can disturb electric grids, GPS systems, and satellites. They can also spread colorful Northern Lights further south than usual, as the latest storm did early Friday.

And more storms are coming. The federal government’s Space Weather Prediction Center says the same area of the sun erupted again Thursday night, with a milder storm expected to reach Earth early Sunday.

Boston University Professor Jeffrey Hughes, head of the Center for Space Weather Modeling compares solar storm season to hurricane season. He says there are worse storms coming that could have a very real impact on us.

WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Carl Stevens reports

This later storm was minor, especially compared to what could be coming.

“What has happened, if you go back over the last several solar cycles, each time there is a new maximum. In the intervening ten years, we tended to develop new technology that we didn’t realize was going to be sensitive,” Hughes told WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Carl Stevens. “’We don’t know what will be a surprise this time. There probably will be one.”

This solar storm season, Hughes says, should last through 2013.

The latest storm started with a flare on Tuesday, and had been forecast to be strong and direct, with one scientist predicting it would blast Earth directly like a punch in the nose. But it arrived Thursday morning at mild levels — at the bottom of the government’s 1-5 scale of severity. It strengthened to a level 3 for several hours early Friday as the storm neared its end. Scientists say that’s because the magnetic part of the storm flipped direction.

“We were watching the boxer, expecting the punch. It didn’t come,” said physicist Terry Onsager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s space weather center in Boulder, Colo. “It hit us with the back of the hand as it was retreating.”

Forecasters can predict a solar storm’s speed and strength, but not the direction of its magnetic field. If it is northward, like Earth’s, the jolt of energy flows harmlessly around the planet, Onsager said. A southerly direction can cause power outages and other problems.

Thursday’s storm came in northerly, but early Friday switched to the fierce southerly direction. The magnetic part of the storm spent several hours at that strong level, so combined with strong radiation and radio levels, it turned out to be the strongest solar storm since November 2004, said NOAA lead forecaster Bob Rutledge.

During that time — around 2 a.m. EST — forecasters expanded the area that could see the Northern Lights. They said it was possible to see the shimmering colorful auroras as far as south as Iowa and Pennsylvania.
“Up north, they got a great display,” said NASA solar physicist David Hathaway.

By late Friday morning the storm was essentially over, forecasters said. But they had a new flare from the same sunspot region to watch. Preliminary forecasts show it to be slightly weaker than the one that just hit, arriving somewhere around 1 a.m. EST Sunday.

The storms are part of the sun’s normal 11-year cycle, which is supposed to reach a peak next year.

“This is what we’re expecting as we approach solar maximum,”” Onsager said. “We should be seeing this for the next few years now.”

(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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