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BY GEORGE: Solar "Bombs"

Get ready for some potentially spectacular night skies (at least in the far northern hemisphere, but maybe even for parts farther south due to the intensity that might occur).  This will be compliments of “solar flares.”  We’ll get into the meat of the subject next, but when these flares interact with the earth’s magnetic field, presto, it’s Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) time.

A solar flare is a sudden brightening observed over the Sun's surface or the solar limb, which is interpreted as a large energy release of up to 6 × 1025 joules of energy.  (That’s A LOT.) They are mainly followed by a colossal coronal mass ejection also known as a CME (about a sixth of the total energy output of the Sun each second or 160,000,000,000 megatons of TNT equivalent). The flare ejects clouds of electrons, ions, and atoms through the corona of the sun into space. These clouds typically reach Earth a day or two after the event.

A huge sunspot that dwarfs the Earth is unleashing a series of powerful solar flares as it moves across the surface of the sun, NASA scientists say.  The sunspot “AR 1476” was detected by space telescopes on May 5. The huge sunspot is 60,000 miles across.

Solar flares strongly influence the local space weather in the vicinity of the Earth. They can produce streams of highly energetic particles in the solar wind, known as a solar proton event, or "coronal mass ejection" (CME). These particles can impact the Earth's magnetosphere, and present radiation hazards to spacecraft and astronauts.

Massive solar flares are sometimes associated with Coronal Mass Ejections which can trigger geomagnetic storms that have been known to knock out electric power for extended periods. Many  hundred thousands of miles of high voltage lines would act like an antenna drawing the electro-magnetic pulse from a solar flare toward thousands of transformers on the world's power grids. Many transformers could burn out and be difficult to replace.

With a peak in the cycle of solar flares approaching, US electricity regulators are weighing their options for protecting the nation's grid from the sun's eruptions -- including new equipment standards and retrofits -- while keeping a lid on the cost.

They are studying the impact of historic “sunstorms” as far back as 1859 to see if the system needs an upgrade.

Among the events they are examining is the Canadian power outage of 1989. On March 13 of that year, five major electricity transmission lines in Quebec went on the fritz. Less than two minutes later, much of the province was in the dark.

The cause: A storm of charged particles from the sun had showered Earth, damaging electrical gear as far away as New Jersey and bringing displays of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, as far south as Texas and Florida.

The sun is expected to hit a peak eruption period in 2013, and while “superstorms” do not always occur in peak periods, some warn of significant damage and power failures.

Some consultants and power engineers whom have spent decades researching these storms, say the modern power grid is not hardened for the worst nature has to offer.

A few even say that extreme storms could cause blackouts lasting weeks or months, leaving major cities temporarily uninhabitable and taking a massive economic toll.

Most others are more cautious in their predictions. Scientists using supercomputers to build models of potential future solar storms based on data that have been accumulated for decades, seem to think that some doomsday scenario’s some are suggesting are not likely, even though significant disruptions are well within the realm of possibility heading into 2013.

By: George Elliott

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