BOULDER, Colo. — Just two floors down from the National Weather Service in Boulder lies the Space Weather Prediction Center, and the bulletins are flying today.
“G1 Magnetic Storm with S3 Radiation Storms likely to extend throughout the rest of the day.”
None of this really means anything to us on a day to day basis, but if you are in the telecommunications business, aviation, or electrical power business, this kind of storm activity can mean anything from hiccups in cell phone service to power outages.
That’s because the sun doesn’t just send heat and light our way. It also sends UV rays, X-rays, radio waves, and a thing called plasma that can disrupt sensitive electronics here on earth.
Once every eleven years the sun turns stormy, producing cool regions on its surface. We know these regions as “sun spots” and around those sunspots come large blasts of all this energy.
This year, and the next couple of years will mark the peak of high sunspot activity, so forecasters tell us that we can expect more of these storms.
Fortunately, we’re protected by a huge magnetic field around the earth, so these solar storms don’t hurt us. But when these storms do hit, that magnetic field wobbles and shakes, and that can cause problems with sensitive electronics equipment.
Airline pilots flying over the North Pole, where the earth’s magnetic field concentrates, have to monitor the strength of these storms because they can interfere with navigational instruments.
Electrical power plant operators watch how the earth’s magnetic field wobbles because it can cause scattered power outages.
Telecommunications operators monitor satellites and phone connections for the same reasons.
So far, we’re not hearing of any problems with today’s solar storms, but we may experience one really neat effect of today’s storms; the Aurora Borealis or Northern lights. The aurora is a faint glow in the northern skies, sometimes visible in Colorado. The best way to view the aurora is to get away from the city, and look north.
Could we see the aurora tonight? Watch the skies.
For more information on solar storms and sunspot activity, you can visit the Space Weather Prediction Center at http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/.