A Honking Big Solar Flare

Seth Jarvis

OK, yes, there’s just been a honking-big solar flare. This is normal. It has happened many times in the past, and will happen many times in the future.

That white flash on the Sun in the upper left of the image is what all the excitement is about.


Billions of tons of charged subatomic particles are at this very moment blazing through space at a few million miles per hour, headed in our general direction. These particles will arrive late tonight (March 7th) or tomorrow (March 8th).

What does it mean? Most likely, the only way you’ll experience it is that if you find yourself in the high latitudes (US-Canadian border and northward) during the next few nights you stand a chance of seeing some pretty spectacular Northern Lights.

There is a slight chance that a particularly strong pulse of these charge particles might mess with the electronics on certain older satellites that lack the ability to enter a “safe” mode and ride out a brief geomagnetic storm. 

Right now the internet is full of news stories about how satellite communications and GPS systems could be disrupted, but I’m skeptical about some of the wilder claims that are circulating. The headlines scream, “It’s the biggest solar outburst in five years!”

Good grief.

Look, the Sun has an 11 year cycle of activity.  Roughly every 11 years the frequency of sunspots and related phenomena ramp up to a peak, then quiet down again.  Five years ago the Sun was in a “quiet” phase, and an “X5” solar flare would be notable. But now, as we ramp up towards the 2013 “Solar Maximum,” these types of flares become more common.

Scientists have ways of categorizing these flares to gauge their severity.  Like Tornados, the scale runs from 1-5, with “1” being the mildest, and “5” representing the most extreme.

Right now, the geomagnetic disturbance we’re talking about rates a “G2.”  Here’s how NOAA describes the current strength of this event:

Power systems: high-latitude power systems may experience voltage alarms, long-duration storms may cause transformer damage.

Spacecraft operations: corrective actions to orientation may be required by ground control; possible changes in drag affect orbit predictions.

Other systems: HF radio propagation can fade at higher latitudes, and aurora has been seen as low as New York and Idaho.

If the storm escalates to a G3 or better, we’ll write more about it.

For now, though, please, chill.




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