Solar Storms Disrupting Satellites and Power

IT managers should be on alert for power and communication disruptions during the next week. A cluster of solar eruptions on the sun is interfering with electrical grids and satellites here on Earth.
Having trouble with satellite communications? Experiencing disruptions in electricity?

The problem is probably farther away than you think.

A cluster of solar eruptions on the sun that started last week could cause electrical and satellite disruptions for another week, according to Larry Combs, a space weather forecaster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Environment Center in Bolder, Colo. Solar flares, described as large tongues or blasts of plasma, began erupting off the sun on Oct. 19 and are heading toward Earth.

The flares, better known as sun spots, can cause disruptions in electrical utilities, satellite-based communications, cell phones and pagers, and high-frequency radio systems, such as the kind used in jet airliners and by amateur radio enthusiasts.

We began feeling the effects of the solar flares last week, according to Combs, and that should last at least through the end of this week.

''On a scale of one to five, these flares are about a three,'' says Combs. ''What they're really affecting are power systems, grids and satellite communications... It can affect communications for airliners flying polar routes or across the Northern Atlantic. It can even open and close your garage door. During an extreme jolt, it can do all kinds of things.''

Combs says IT managers should be on alert for sporadic electrical disruptions. They also should alert users about the potential for communication disruptions if they are using satellite-based technology.

Power companies and satellite operators are on high alert for disruptions this week. Combs says utility providers learned their lesson the hard way back in 1989 when an extreme solar storm hit the Earth, causing black outs in Canada and the northern United States.

The plasma that erupts off the surface of the sun is made up of electrons and protons. It's hurled into space in the form of a plasma cloud. AS the cloud nears Earth, it encounters orbiting satellites and then eventually enters the Earth's atmosphere and plows into the ground, disrupting the Earth's magnetic field structure. Combs notes it can even cause a geomagnetic storm in the Earth.

People can actually see these storms in the form of the aurora borealis or the Northern Lights. The stronger the storms, the further they push the Northern Lights down from the North. Combs says that this week the Northern Lights will be clearly visible in places unaccustomed to it, such as Wisconsin, Illinois and Oregon.

What makes this particular solar flare so interesting to scientists is its timing. The sun's weather, much like that on Earth, has seasons and cycles. The sun is nearing the very end of its solar flare cycle. That means this cluster of flares is akin to the American mid-West experiencing a series of tornadoes or the East Coast suffering hurricanes in November.

''For the next week or so, satellite communications will be intermittent,'' says Combs. ''Satellites are like ships on the ocean. They have to live out there in the sea of space... Mother Nature can do what it wants to do, but from what we can tell right now the storm should maintain this level of activity for a little while.''






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