Thursday, March 08, 2012

Geomagnetic Storm? Solar Flare? Sunspots? What Are These and Why Should I Care?

NOAA's Space Weather Update on what could happen during the current Geomagnetic Storm. At this point, not much of an event but great Northern Lights. For more explanations, read the rest below...

What is the Earth's magnetic field?

The earth is surrounded by a magnetic field similar to a magnet in your house. Remember back in grade school when the teacher would shake some iron filings on a sheet of paper placed over a store bought magnet?  The shape the iron filings made was determined by the magnetic field around the magnet.  It looked something like this

What is a "solar flare"?

Before we answer this, we need to understand the sun's behavior a little better:  The surface of the sun go through cycles of high and low levels of activity.  These are called solar cycles which change every 11 years or so.  We are entering in an time of elevated activity.

Higher levels produce more sunspots (areas of lower temperature on the sun's surface) which produce more solar flares. 

Recently, research of the dynamically processes within the sun have revealed that these solar cycles are driven by a process called "Magnetic reconnection" or the changing of the magnetic field within the sun. This changing of the magnetic field results in a tremendous amount of energy release on the surface which can create solar flares.  Scientists can detect the beginnings of sunspots by "listening" to the "noise" produced by the motions within the sun.  The sun's turbulence creates a sound that can be detected before the sunspot forms. Currently, the sunspots are producing a flare that will impact the earth's magnetic field. 

Why do we care here on earth?

The earth's magnetic field is very similar to the magnet from grade school science class except MUCH STRONGER.  When a solar flare is ejected from the sun, it shoots out highly energetic particles that react with the earth's field.  These particles are like the iron filings your grade school teacher spilled on the white sheet of paper described above.

These particles stimulate the earth's magnetic field which can interrupt communications if the flare is strong enough and at the right angle.

One large geomagnetic storm occurred in 1989 that knocked power in parts of Canada

For sure, expect some great northern lights in Canada and in the higher latitudes and maybe here in Northeastern Ohio if the skies clear out. Below is a photo taken from the International Space Station as it passed near the highly energized atmosphere producing an awesome Aurora!

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