WEAU | Eau Claire, Wisconsin | Weather

Sun lashes out with largest solar storm in nearly ten years

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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