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Posted on Wed, Oct. 29, 2003

Scientists await technological fallout from giant solar flare

The Orlando Sentinel

(KRT) - Scientists have predicted for a week that one of the most disruptive solar flares in history could spell trouble for global communication, transportation, electricity and television companies.

But late Wednesday, satellite controllers were still holding their breath for the fallout that hadn't materialized.

Although the solar storm - the fourth-largest recorded - never posed a threat to humans, thanks to the Earth's protective ozone layer, technology is not yet in the clear, according to forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"We're expecting severe (solar) storms for the next day and a half," said Warren Miller, a forecaster with NOAA, which monitors weather threats from space for industries that rely on satellites. "We could experience some radio interference."

The distance between the sun and the Earth makes it difficult to predict solar storms. It's like a meteorologist in California trying to predict a hurricane in Africa, Miller said.

The scorching ball of hot gases contains so much energy that a square centimeter of its surface emits as much light as a 6,000-watt light bulb.

Think of a solar flare as a contained gust of trash-filled wind hurtling toward Earth at 5 million mph.

They begin as volcanoes of hot plasma exploding from the sun's surface and, depending on their strength and direction, can wreak havoc on global communication or float by unnoticed.

Normally the Earth's magnetic field deflects these tiny particles from the sun to the north and south poles, just like a magnet under a piece of paper repels iron filings sprinkled on top. Under calm conditions, a few of those atoms traveling northward hit the atmosphere, creating the shimmering Northern Lights.

But the particles from solar flares sometimes create their own magnetic field, which burrows a hole in the Earth's.

Instead of being deflected, the plume of particles penetrates the field, disrupting radio waves like turbulence agitating an airplane.

During a solar storm, communication signals can be bounced in the wrong direction or cut off, which could hamper emergency responders using those frequencies.

Worst-case scenario: blackout.

"The charged particles from the sun can and have wreaked havoc on satellites," said Alister Graham, an astronomy researcher at the University of Florida. "In 1995, they actually caused an electrical discharge that spontaneously changed a satellite's position by thrusting its rockets."

In 1989, a storm damaged electrical equipment in the eastern United States, and 6 million Canadians were left in the dark when the Hydro Quebec power grid malfunctioned.

In 1998, a solar storm was blamed for wrecking the Galaxy 4 satellite, halting news feeds and 45 million electronic pagers across North America for days.

Those storms were considerably weaker than the one that hit Wednesday, which was classified as a G5, or "extreme," and took only 19 hours to get here from the sun.

The current rash of flares has been a bit of an anomaly for reasons other than its strength.

Solar storms normally peak about once every 11 years, and in this case that would have been in late 2000. That makes this week's dose a bit like a December heat wave.

"We can't predict how the storm is going to evolve," said John Kohl, a lecturer in the astronomy department at Harvard University. "I expect it to pick back up and subside."


(Orlando Sentinel correspondents Greg Groeller and Todd Pack contributed to this report.)


© 2003, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Visit the Sentinel on the World Wide Web at On America Online, use keyword: OSO.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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