This week we’ve been reporting about a huge solar flare which will aim towards the Earth on Friday, October 24. According to NOAA, this sunspot cluster was supposed to produce a G3 solar storm, but it will actually be a G5, which is the strongest. A second sunspot cluster, that’s not yet visible from Earth, could produce more geomagnetic storms in the next two weeks. How will all this affect us? Besides scrambling our cell phones and affecting electrical grids, it will also make flying more dangerous.

Scientists have long known that cosmic rays and solar flares can affect the electronic systems and onboard computers on airplanes. Some air routes are more susceptible to these kinds of dangers, and researchers have begun measuring the radiation levels in different parts of the sky so they can figure out where it’s safest to fly. A solar storm like current one increases the danger. “This substantially increases the need to improve the definition of the atmospheric radiation field as a function of location and time, and to reduce the significant uncertainties associated with present day predictions,” says NASA’s Epaminondas G. Stassinopoulos.

Stassinopoulos wants to produce global maps of the atmospheric radiation field. So far, he’s found that high doses of radiation are strongest at the poles, in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. This is particularly true during solar storms, when which large quantities of charged particles reach the Earth’s atmosphere. He hopes this information will help airlines plan better routes, especially during solar storms like the current one.

In order to find out how this solar storm will affect us, NASA scientists are studying the events of September 1-2, 1859, which was the last time such a major storm occurred. Although there were no electrical grids, airplanes or communications satellites then, the storm had a major impact: within a few hours, telegraph wires in both the United States and Europe spontaneously shorted out, causing many fires, while the Northern Lights were seen as far south as Rome, Havana and Hawaii.

“Remarkably, science has documented solar events a hundred times more intense,” says NASA’s Bruce Tsurutani. “But none of them interacted with the Earth in such a violent manner. What happened in 1859 was a combination of several events that occurred on the Sun at the same time. If they took place separately they would be somewhat notable events. But together they created the most potent disruption of Earth’s ionosphere in recorded history. What they generated was the perfect space storm.”

The Sun contains around 383 billion trillion kilowatts of energy, equivalent to 100 billion tons of TNT exploding every second. But the energy released by the Sun is not constant. Every once in a while?and so far, this can’t be predicted?an event occurs on the surface that releases a tremendous amount of energy in the form of a solar flare or a coronal mass ejection, an explosive burst of very hot, electrified gases.

In 1859, it began on August 28, when astronomers noted the development of numerous sunspots on the Sun’s surface. Sunspots are regions of extremely intense magnetic fields that intertwine. The resulting magnetic energy can generate a sudden, violent release of energy called a solar flare. From August 28 to September 2, several solar flares were observed. Then, on September 1, the Sun released a mammoth solar flare. For almost an entire minute the Sun produced twice its usual amount of energy.

“With the flare came this explosive release of a massive cloud of magnetically charged plasma called a coronal mass ejection,” says Tsurutani. “These things actually fire out from the Sun radially, so not all of them head toward the Earth. But those that do usually take three to four days to reach Earth. This one took all of 17 hours and 40 minutes.”

The coronal mass ejection of September 1, 1859, overwhelmed Earth’s own magnetic field, allowing charged particles to penetrate into Earth’s upper atmosphere. More recently, a 1994 solar storm caused major malfunctions to two communications satellites, disrupting newspaper, network television and radio service in Canada. Other storms have affected cell phones, GPS systems and electrical power grids. In March 1989, a solar storm much less intense than the perfect space storm of 1859 caused the Hydro-Quebec power grid in Canada to go down for over nine hours.

“The question I get asked most often is, ‘Could a perfect space storm happen again, and when?'” says Tsurutani. “I tell people it could, and it could very well be even more intense than what transpired in 1859. As for when, we simply do not know.” Friday, October 24, may be the day.

What can we learn from the heavens? A noted scientists says: more than we think. Learn all about it on this week?s Dreamland.

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