Earth braces for biggest space storm in five years

By Agence France-Presse

A pair of steamy explosions on the Sun’s surface in recent days is sparking the biggest radiation and geomagnetic storm the Earth has experienced in five years, space weather experts said Wednesday.

The full brunt of the storm is expected to hit Earth early Thursday US time and last through Friday, potentially disrupting power grids, GPS systems, satellites, and forcing airplanes to change their routes around the polar regions.

“Space weather has gotten very interesting over the past 24 hours,” said Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The fuss began late Sunday at an active region on the sun known as 1429, with a big solar flare that was associated with a burst of solar wind and plasma known as a coronal mass ejection that hurtled in Earth’s direction.

Another solar flare and CME followed at 0024 GMT on March 7, setting off a strong geomagnetic and solar radiation storm, both at level three on a five-step scale.

The solar flares alone caused brief high frequency radio blackouts that have now passed.

But the ensuing space storm will likely give viewers in Central Asia a prime look at the northern lights on Thursday night, in addition to garbling some of Earthlings’ most prized gadgets, Kunches said.

The storm is likely “the strongest one since December 2006,” Kunches said, noting, however, that the Earth experienced a stronger radio blackout last August.

“But en masse, if you put it all together with the geomagnetic effects and the solar radiation effects, I would put it on par with one at the end of the last solar cycle which was over five years ago.”

Satellites, power girds and even astronauts aboard the International Space Station could be affected by the radiation storm, which may cause them to seek shelter in better protected parts of the orbiting lab as they have in the past.

“We have been talking to the commercial airlines and we know that some have already taken actions to reroute, to go further away from the poles,” Kunches added. And more such storms could follow in the coming days because region 1429 is expected to stay active, he said.

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