Lightshow, but no harm as solar storm reaches Earth

25 Jan

A solar storm that erupted Sunday evening was expected to give some northern Canadians the opportunity to see a show of aurora borealis Tuesday night – but serious communication blackouts and power failures were highly unlikely.

According to Rodney Viereck, space weather scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the storm isn’t cause for alarm.

“This isn’t a very remarkable event. There are some features that are remarkable, but in terms of size and scale and impact, it’s a moderate storm,” Viereck said.

He said the most likely effect would be the visibility of the aurora borealis, which was expected to be easiest to see around midnight.

Storms such as this one are rated in three categories – geomagnetic storms, solar radiation storms and radio blackouts – on a one to five scale. Sunday’s event registered a three on the radiation scale and a one in geomagnetic activity. The flare was rated as a two on the five-point scale.


The radiation portion of the storms send a wave of charged protons towards the Earth, with the possibility of causing communication problems for aircraft at high latitudes and posing some, though not serious, danger for satellites and astronauts.

Viereck said there had been a few reports of satellites having minor difficulties, but no serious problems had been noticed. He also stressed that astronauts were in no real danger on the International Space Station.

“As long as their orbit stays at mid-latitudes, they’re not too bad,” he said. “Probably about two or three times a day, in the natural orbit of the space station, they may ask the astronauts to go into parts of the space station that are more radiation hardened.”

The space weather could affect some travellers on long-haul flights – for example from New York to Tokyo – as flights have to divert from their normal polar routes to avoid communication problems.


“For some reason, this (storm) had a very strong proton event associated with it. Just like you might get a thunderstorm where one storm has wind and another one has hail. This particular storm came with a lot of energetic protons.”

The NOAA scientist said a radiation storm of this size hadn’t been seen since October 2003.

Solar flares have in the past caused serious troubles for power girds, most notably in 1989 when six million Quebecers were without power for the better part of a day because of massive storm.

Viereck said not only was this a weak storm but scientists are also better at predicting such storms, giving power companies plenty of advance warning. Most providers in North America have used the lessons of 1989 to improve their procedures to ready themselves in the face of solar flares.


“Even if it had been a larger storm, they are one of our most knowledgeable customer bases,” he said. “All of the power grid operators have made their systems much more robust and have learned to operate through these storms.”


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