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August 5, 2011 / Dave Gorham

Sun Throws A Tantrum. Your GPS May Be Next.

CME composite from 2002. Photo: NASA

ImpactWeather VP IT and ham radio enthusiast Kyle Tupin guest-posts today.

Our sun unleashed the solar equivalent of a large, unruly belch yesterday which may lead to some unusual effects here on Earth.  The sun undergoes an eleven-year cycle of increasing and decreasing activity known as sunspots.  As a ham radio operator, I’ve always been interested in the sunspot cycle since it affects our long-range communication on high frequency radio.

What happened on August 4 at sunspot number 1261 was a solar flare which contained what is known as a coronal mass ejection or CME. (There’s a short but great video here.)  CMEs happen quite frequently, especially at the peak of sunspot cycles, however when they’re targeted toward the Earth, they can have beautiful but disastrous consequences if they’re strong enough.  CMEs have a classification rating based on magnitude much like the Richter scale for magnitude of earthquakes.  The CME from sunspot 1261 was classified as an M9.3, a rather strong one, almost in the strongest category of an X-Class CME.  These CMEs contain plasma and electromagnetic energy that can disrupt satellite, radio and telephone communications.

Aurora Australis observed from the International Space Station on May 29, 2010. Photo: NASA

As far as the beautiful goes, most visible are the resulting aurora borealis (northern hemisphere) and aurora australis (southern hemisphere) when vivid and colorful lights can dance across the night sky.   While these lights have been observed for thousands of years, it was not until humanity started developing sufficient technology that we discovered further affects caused by the sunspots, flares and CMEs.  On the disastrous side, in the late 1800’s as telegraph lines were strung throughout the world, a CME caused a major disruption and even electrocuted some telegraph operators as a large electrical current was induced into wires during this severe event.  CMEs can also lead to electrical blackouts due to the same affects with respect to the electrical grid.

When can we expect the effects from this one to arrive?  Scientists believe it will be sometime today, August 5th.  So if your radio has static or – worse yet, given our growing dependency on gadgets – your GPS gives you wrong directions, you may be seeing the affects of this latest CME.

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