THV Extra: Solar storms could have major impact on Earth

    10:00 PM, Oct 25, 2012   |    comments
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    LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - It's hard to think about a world with no electricity, satellite, and even radio waves, even if only for a few days. But, that could happen due to an astronomical event called a "solar storm."

    This could cause medical, military and financial worlds to crash with only days' notice. On the opposite side, nothing could happen at all.

    "It shouldn't frighten anyone really," says astronomer Dr. Clay Sherrod, who owns an observatory on Petit Jean Mountain. "The effects aren't something that would be an immediate cataclysm that you see in the movies."

    A solar storm is a burst of particles that moves more than 8 million miles per hour out of the sun. It's an electromagnetic disturbance known as a Coronal Mass Ejection.

    Dr. Sherrod has studied this phenomenon and predicts the coming months to be an active time for the sun, which increases the chance of global impacts from a geomagnetic disturbance.

    The solar maximum, or peak of solar activity, is believed to have kicked off in July this last summer.

    "They (solar storms) got to our Earth atmosphere we ended up with a lot cell phone communication disruption, minor TV and radio communication." Dr. Sherrod said as he described some sort of disruption that took place.

    Symptoms of a solar storm don't confuse many realms of science. For example, Earth's magnetic field is vital for climate and weather. Dr. Sherrod explained, "Disruption of weather could cause a tsunami, tidal wave. It could cause geological activity because of the shifting of the plates, it could cause all sorts of climatic activity such as glaciations."

    Despite the big events that could occur with a solar storm, there is still plenty of uncertainty among experts. Seeing how the "peak" is coming in May, Dr. Sherrod says there should already be more activity if a solar storm were to take place in the coming months.

    Something that points to abnormal astronomical behavior is that last July, Arkansans were able to see the Aurora Borealis, which is normally restricted to northern latitudes.

    Dr. Sherrod explains the real chances of a catastrophe.

    "Thinking about it logically and looking at the science or what little science we have on solar storms, I would give it less than 10 percent that anything is going to happen that would be major... that would actually influence our daily lives on Earth," he said.

    To be on the safe side, electric companies have been studying these storms for nearly a decade. Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a notice of proposed rulemaking and is now in a period of taking comments for the next 60 days.

    The 35-page document has two parts. The first has regulations on how to handle gridding if solar storm we're to take place. The second explains how to build future grids to best prepare for the event of a geomagnetic disturbance.


    Twitter: @SarahFortnerWX

    More information:

    Articles on solar flares by NASA.

    NASA Photos: Solar flare activity.


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