On Thursday, March 8th, scientists from all over the world watched with abated breath, as a powerful solar storm hit earth. While the first day proved to be quite benign, the intensity of the solar flares increased dramatically into early Friday.
Experts believe that the lack of negative impact on the first day may have to do with the fact that a majority of the solar flares went along the northern axis. However, by early Friday they switched directions and the charged particles traveling at a supersonic speed of 4.5 million mph began to hit earth fiercely, on the southern side. Fortunately, while there were some minor disruptions, the powerful outburst from the sun, the strongest to hit us in the last five years, caused no major damage to our satellites, electric grids or GPS systems.
What it did do however, was provide stunning auroras in cities like Michiganand Seattle, that normally never get to experience these spectacular Northern lights. The lights were also visible from Alaska, Minnesota and North Dakota in the Northern hemisphere, as well as, Australia and New Zealand in the Southern hemisphere.
Though this storm, which followed a milder one that erupted on Sunday, is the largest in a few years, it is not by far the biggest. According to the scientists it was a G3, on the geomagnetic storm intensity scale, which ranges from G1 to G5, with G5 being the strongest.
The largest solar storm to ever hit earth occurred in 1859. Dubbed the Carrington Event, after British astronomer Richard Carrington who was the first to connect the activity on the sun with the geomagnetic disturbances on Earth, the storm was so powerful that the Northern lights could be seen as far south as Cuba and Honolulu, while Southern Lights shone all the way up to Santiago, Chile. Also, they were so bright that people in the Northeastern USA were able to read their newspapers from the light of the aurora! While there weren't any satellites or GPS devices to destroy, the flares did set sparks and even burned some of the equipment belonging to the U.S. telegraph operators.
Solar flares or storms begin with an explosion usually above a sunspot, the area where strong magnetic fields poke through the surface of the sun. These spots become unstable and explode, releasing intense amounts of energy - the equivalent of 10 billion hydrogen bombs. Called solar flares they resemble a flash of light and can reach earth within a short 8 minutes. When they hit the two poles, they create beautiful auroras that are often referred to as Northern or Southern lights.
The good news is that these blasts of radiation are blocked by the magnetosphere and atmosphere and therefore, pose no risk to humans. However, the protons and other charged particles that follow the flares within about 20 minutes can be extremely destructive to our satellite systems, GPS tracking devices and power grids.
Though the sun has been relatively peaceful over the last few years, solar storms are not a new phenomenon. They seem to occur regularly every 11 years or so. Since the latest cycle is not expected to peak until next year, scientists are anticipating more storms in the coming months. Hopefully, they will all be as harmless as this one was, leaving behind nothing in its wake except, stunning pictures.
Resources: nationalgeographic.com, nvonews.com, huffingtonpost.com