The solar storm, which began on Oct. 19, is picking up in intensity, sending solar flares shooting toward the Earth, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Environment Center in Bolder, Colo. The first pulses from the most recent storm hit the Earth's magnetic field in the early hours Thursday, registering a G5, the highest-intensity rating on the agency's scale of space weather. The current storm is still hammering the Earth and is expected to continue through Friday morning.
The last time a solar storm of this magnitude hit the Earth was back in 1989, when it caused blackouts in Canada and the northern United States.
Japanese space officials reportedly have lost two satellites, being forced to shut one damaged communications satellite down and then losing contact with another. The NOAA reports that power grids in the northern U.S. and Canada also have been affected by the geomagnetic storm. And airliners flying polar routes and across the northern portion of the Atlantic Ocean have had to divert their flight plans because of increased radiation and loss of radio communications, according to Larry Combs, a space weather forecaster with the NOAA.
''Radio communications have been extremely blacked out,'' says Combs. ''Power grids are experiencing severe stress, particularly in the northern United States. Nuclear energy plans have reduced their operational capacity to mitigate possible effects from these storms.
''They're all hustling, I'm sure, because it's been one storm after another,'' he adds. ''Everyone's on high alert.''
The NOAA scientist 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.
The current storm hitting Earth should last through morning, but Combs expects a long series of solar flares will continue for another four or five days. And he notes that the coming flares are predicted to be in the G3 to G5, or medium- to high-intensity, range.
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 planet's magnetic field structure. Combs notes it can even cause a geomagnetic storm in the Earth.
The flares, better known as sun spots, can cause disruptions in electrical utilities, communications and high-frequency radio systems, such as the kind used by amateur radio enthusiasts and jet airliners. Combs notes that airliners flying polar routes or across the northern Atlantic may experience communication disruptions for the next week.
People actually can 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 were visible as far south as El Paso, Texas.
The solar storm that flared up early last week was of a medium-intensity level, being most notable for it's timing than it's potential for damage. 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.
This week's G5 storm erupted off the surface of the sun early Tuesday, and traveled through space at 5 million miles per hour, according to NOAA scientists. ''It took the geomagnetic storm just 19 hours to reach Earth after it occurred on the sun,'' says Combs. ''That's one of the fastest-traveling solar storms this cycle.''