Archive for the ‘solar activity’ tag
Most people don’t realize that solar activity can have a profound effect on certain operations on Earth, ranging from drilling for oil, power grids, railway signaling and other areas of industry.
The United States and Great Britain last month decided to collaborate to create a space weather warning system, which will be able to more accurately predict the sun’s activity. The sun is currently in a slow or relatively quiet weather pattern. Scientists expect to see more intense solar activity in the coming years.
Here is an article from The New York Times with more details:
… Modern society depends on a variety of technologies that are susceptible to the extremes of space weather. Spectacular explosions on the Sun’s surface produce solar storms of intense magnetism and radiation. These events can disrupt the operation of power grids, railway signaling, magnetic surveying and drilling for oil and gas. Magnetic storms also heat the upper atmosphere, changing its density and composition and disrupting radio communications and GPS units. The storms’ charged particles can be a hazard to the health of astronauts and passengers on high altitude flights.
Severe storms in 1989 and 2003 caused blackouts in Canada and Sweden. In 1859, a solar super storm sparked fires in telegraph offices. Such storms are predicted every century or so, and perhaps we’re overdue. According to a 2008 National Academies report, a once-in-a-century solar storm could cause the financial damage of 20 Hurricane Katrinas.
A quiet Sun causes its own problems. During the two-year quiet spell, our upper atmosphere, normally heated and inflated by the Sun’s extreme ultraviolet radiation, cooled off and shrank. This altered the propagation of GPS signals and slowed the rate of decay of space debris in low Earth orbit. In addition, the cosmic rays that are normally pushed out to the fringes of the solar system by solar explosions instead surged around Earth, threatening astronauts and satellites with unusually high levels of radiation.
The more we know about solar activity, the better we can protect ourselves. The Sun is surrounded by a fleet of spacecraft that can see sunspots forming, flares crackling and a solar storm about 30 minutes before it hits Earth. NASA and the National Science Foundation have also developed sophisticated models to predict where solar storms will go once they leave the Sun, akin to National Weather Service programs that track hurricanes and tornadoes on Earth. Thanks to these sentries, it is increasingly difficult for the Sun to take us by surprise.