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March 09. 2012 11:49AM

Scientists say no need for panic as powerful solar storm hits Earth


The sun erupts with one of the largest solar flares of this solar cycle in this NASA photo taken on March 6. (NASA / REUTERS)

DURHAM - Scientists from the University of New Hampshire say a strong solar storm caused by a flare unleashed by the sun earlier this week shouldn't create panic on Earth.

"Nothing dangerous is going to happen on the planet," said Harlan Spence, director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Ocean and Space at UNH.

The storm has had many people buzzing over fears that it would knock out power grids, satellites, GPS signals and other devices, but forecasters from the national Space Weather Prediction Center said they don't expect it to cause any significant disruptions – at least not here on Earth.

The most noticeable impact so far may be on air travel. Spence said some intercontinental flights over the polar regions are being rerouted to lower latitudes to avoid elevated radiation risks for aircraft at higher latitudes.

NASA said this week's solar storm is the strongest in five years and was caused by a powerful solar flare that erupted on the sun Tuesday night. The flare sent a burst of energy and charged particles known as a coronal mass ejection, or CME, toward Earth. The CME reached Earth just before 6 a.m. Thursday.

Spence said solar flares create two types of storms – a geomagnetic storm and a solar radiation storm. The flare on Tuesday created stronger storms and came at a time when solar activity is ramping up after an unusually quiet period.

The sun experiences an 11-year cycle of activity, with the latest cycle beginning in late 2008. The activity is expected to peak in May 2013

“We're starting to see the sun really wake up,” Spence said.

Scientists have long feared a major solar storm like one in 1859 that crippled the telegraph system hitting Earth again sometime in the future. With a world dependent on electricity and technology, some researchers say a massive solar storm has the potential to be catastrophic.

“History shows that the sun has been capable of producing larger events, larger than this,” Spence said.

While there's no way to predict the sun's next eruption, scientists said there will likely be more in the coming months.

“We're all in a wait and see mode,” said Nathan Schwadron, associate professor of physics at UNH. “From my perspective, I see that the chances are higher that we could be seeing some very strange behavior. Strange may be large events, or maybe not. For solar physicists these are interesting times.”


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