Sun lashes out with largest solar storm in nearly ten years

By: Matt Hoffman Email
By: Matt Hoffman Email

It's got a lot of people talking, an intense solar storm of charged particles being hurled at the earth Tuesday. On Monday, a solar flare erupted on the surface of the sun and on Tuesday it was hurling a storm of charged and magnetic particles and radiation at the earth. The space weather prediction center says this is the strongest solar storm since October of 2003.

Associate astronomy professor at UW-Eau Claire, Nathan Miller, says the weather on the sun is driven by a very powerful and dynamic magnetic field.

"Occasionally you'll get a coronal mass ejection and that's what we're talking about here where a whole blob of magnetic field and charged particles is belched out into space," explained Miller.

He says the sun is in an 11 year cycle and we're ramping up to another high point of solar weather activity in 2013.

"The one that makes this special is it is aimed pretty directly at the earth. We aren't actually right where it’s aimed. It's going to pass over the north pole but its close enough to being aimed directly at the earth we'll feel some of the effects."

When these storms are aimed directly at earth, they bend the earth's magnetic field causing it to be distorted. This can lead to communications issues for planes and satellites. Today, airlines re-routed traffic away from the North Pole and planes in northern latitudes were flying at a lower altitude.

"It can affect power lines. There will be slight power fluctuations due to the magnetic field sweeping across the large power lines."

These storms are also known for causing beautiful displays of the northern lights.

"So when those particles hit the atmosphere, they can excite the oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere and cause them to glow. And that's what you're seeing essentially. Kind of neon light but really high up in the atmosphere," says Miller.

The storm is subsiding as we speak, unfortunately cloud cover likely will keep you sky watchers from seeing the northern lights in Western Wisconsin. The best time to see it will be around midnight. Although a strong solar storm like this can happen anytime, Miller says the chances are higher with increased solar activity over the next two to three years.

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  • by Rutiger on Jan 26, 2012 at 05:17 AM
    Mark Holley thinks the forecast is like early March. The warmest two days at each end are a few degrees below the average for the first of March, and inbetween its dropping to a high on Sunday that is colder than the coldest normal high of January! Not as bad as the guy from the weather channel on the radio, he said "This is getting more like it, a high of 16 on Sunday". Has the never ending global warming propaganda made everyone think we need to be miserably cold or something is wrong?
    • reply
      by Dundee on Jan 29, 2012 at 09:13 AM in reply to Rutiger
      Yep, I am reading todays forecast and upper thirties is said to be way above normal. Not sure if it was the same guy, but when highs were fighting to get above zero it was said to be something we can expect. What?! Where does this thinking come from, anything above normal is end of the world, anything below normal is probably a good thing.
  • by Anonymous on Jan 25, 2012 at 07:45 AM
    I hope Santa Clause is going to be OK.
  • by Dave Location: Bloomer on Jan 25, 2012 at 03:05 AM
    Could this explain the peculiar radar "display" a few days ago, after another CME? The one wit the full circle of the radar sweep returning a speckled appearance. I realize the physics of how weather radar is supposed to be reflected off water vapor/drops... Sometimes what is happening in nature is still a bit of "Magic"
    • reply
      by Anonymous on Jan 25, 2012 at 06:52 AM in reply to Dave
      Last night while I was watching my TV (satellite) the channels kept changing randomly for a minute or so. No, I was not pushing any buttons on the remote (it was sitting on the coffee table). Satellite interruption or Casper playing tricks? :)
  • by Al Location: Gore on Jan 24, 2012 at 09:03 PM
    Global warming is now hitting the Sun!!! We need more green energy now!!!!
  • by John Location: EC on Jan 24, 2012 at 07:47 PM
    Is this because of my Suburban?
  • by j Location: Osseo on Jan 24, 2012 at 05:56 PM
    A story on solar activity and we get Walker comments?? Seriously people? I'm all for that idiot being ousted but wow .....
  • by Louis on Jan 24, 2012 at 05:23 PM
    Get ready for Dec.21st this is just a sample.
  • by Anonymous on Jan 24, 2012 at 03:45 PM
  • by Recaller logic on Jan 24, 2012 at 03:02 PM
    This is surely a sign from the heavens that Walker must go. [/sarcasm]
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