The Perfect Storm
Vol: 25 Issue: 24 Friday, October 24, 2003
Forecasters at NOAA are warning of a perfect storm in outer space that could have serious consequences for Planet Earth, beginning sometime today. NOAA’s ‘Sunspot 484’ developed rapidly over the past three days and is now one of the largest sunspot clusters to emerge during Solar Cycle 23.
It is about 10 times larger than the Earth. This region, which is nearing the center of the sun, already produced a major flare, R-3 on the NOAA Space Weather Scales, producing a radio blackout on October 19.
Larry Combs, a forecaster with the NOAA Space Environment Center s Space Weather Operations, said that this region has developed rapidly over the last three to four days. It s somewhat unusual to have this much activity when we re approximately three-and-a-half years past solar maximum, he said. In fact, just last week, solar activity was very low with an almost spotless sun.
Solar cycles of high and low activity repeat about every eleven years, and the sun has been moving towards solar minimum for the past three years.
A second intense active region is rotating on the southeast quadrant of the sun.
Although the sunspot group is not yet visible, two powerful eruptions occurred on October 21 as seen from the LASCO instrument on the SOHO spacecraft. These eruptions may herald the arrival of another volatile active center with the potential to impact various Earth systems.
During extreme solar storms, weather and military satellites can be damaged, power systems at high latitudes become vulnerable to blackouts, and the aurora borealis, or northern lights, may shimmer across night skies at lower latitudes.
Forecasters invariably warning of dire consequences to earth’s communications satellites, cellular phone traffic and internet communications.
Back in 1859, a solar storm caused telegraph wires in the US and Europe to short out, sparking numerous fires.
In 1989, a solar storm tripped protective switches in Canadian Hydro-Qu bec power company. All of Qu bec lost power for nine hours. The problem nearly spread to the United States through an interconnected grid. Power companies have since developed programs to safeguard their systems, but experts say they remain at risk.
A 1994 solar storm caused major malfunctions to two communications satellites, disrupting newspaper, network television and nationwide radio service throughout Canada.
In 1997, an AT&T Telstar 401 satellite used to broadcast television shows from networks to local affiliates was knocked out during a solar storm.
In May 1998 a space storm disabled PanAmSat s Galaxy 4, used for automated teller machines and airline tracking services, among other things.
Another storm in July 2000 put several satellites temporarily out of contact and caused navigation problems in others.
Forecasters said a second sunspot, developing and about to rotate into an effective position on the sun s surface, could produce additional stormy weather over the next couple of weeks. In fact, early Thursday it unleashed a major flare of its own, one that could generate some space weather near Earth even though it wasn t pointed directly at us.
“And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things BEGIN to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.” (Luke 21:25-28)