Photo of a solar flare.
The 2011 solar flare is disrupting technology. CC by thebadastronomer/Flickr

The Earth feels it when the sun has a bad-weather day, even though it is millions of miles away. The world is facing problems with many electronics during the first major solar flare of 2011. Though the solar flare is causing beautiful Northern Lights, the negative effects are frustrating.

The solar storm in 2011

A geomagnetic event, also known as a solar storm, happened on Feb. 13, 2011. The storm was centered on sunspot 1158. On Feb. 14, the magnetic fields around the sun “snapped” because of how tightly they were twisted up during the storm.  This caused an X-class solar flare to be released. X-class flares are the most powerful solar flares and contain radiation that covers most of the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to gamma rays. On Feb. 15, a wave of radiation started to hit Earth. This batch of radiation is called a coronal mass ejection (CME) cloud. According to NASA, the first solar flare of 2011 will give Earth a heavy dose of electromagnetic radiation and is expected to last more than a week.

Issues caused by the 2011 solar flare

As Washington state astronomy enthusiast Jaspenelle Stewart explains, the electromagnetic waves from the solar flare travel through space at close to the speed of light and increase the ionization — the electrical charge — in the atmosphere. Any technology that relies on electricity or radio waves can be affected by this X-class solar flare. The radio communications in China have been affected already. NASA and the U.S. National Weather Service estimate that this solar flare could interfere with navigation systems, satellites and power grids. Very few power grids in the world are shielded from such an event; the only real protection is shutting down the generators.

Viewing the northern lights differently after the 2011 solar flare

The extra-heavy charge in the atmosphere does come with a small bright side. It means the sky will display the aurora borealis. Most of Northern America is able to see these Northern Lights much more clearly than usual. Your best bet for watching the Northern Lights during the first 2011 solar storm is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., away from city lights, Thursday night and Friday.


Universe Today:

Solar Dynamics Observatory at NASA:

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