Scientists: Solar Storms a Threat to Earth

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An eruption of plasma from a coronal mass ejection on Sept. 26, 2014. Charged particles like these, if directed towards Earth, can impact communication and navigation devices as well as our planet's power grids. An eruption of plasma from a coronal mass ejection on Sept. 26, 2014. Charged particles like these, if directed towards Earth, can impact communication and navigation devices as well as our planet's power grids.
DECATUR - Ninety-three million miles away sits our old, but still very active sun. Like Earth, the star has weather too. However, it's far from what we're used to. Solar flares, radiation storms and coronal mass ejections are a part of space weather which has become a serious threat for our planet.

"The sun's been doing its thing for 4.5 billion years, but we've developed lots of advanced technologies that make us more vulnerable," said Bob Rutledge, Lead Forecaster at the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, CO.

Rutledge is just one of dozens of scientists at the center working to advance the relatively new field.

"Many people compare us to weather forecasting in the ‘50s and ‘60s, or maybe if they are generous, in the ‘70s," Rutledge said.

Solar storms can happen anywhere around the sun. If one of those storms is directed towards Earth, charged particles will bombard the planet at approximately 700,000 miles per hour. Those particles can interact with our magnetic field and cause a wide range of problems.

Not only will GPS be impacted becoming less reliable (or even inoperable in some cases), high frequency radios would be silenced and power grids would be damaged. That means billions across the globe could be in the dark for days, weeks and maybe even years in the strongest storms.

"If you have a big enough episode of this, it will overload transformers on our power grid and blow them out. So you could have worldwide outages," Dr. Casey Watson, an astrophysicist at Millikin University, said.

"When you look at the magnitude of the impacts and risk if we lose power over a widespread area, it certainly needs to be addressed and that's why it has the attention of the highest levels of government,” Rutledge said including the fact that it even has the attention of the White House.

Scientists said several of these major storms have happened in our past with recorded occurrences dating as far back as 1859 and as recently as July 2012. The 2012 event narrowly missed Earth with the storm erupting just one week after the planet passed through that part of space.

Forecasters don't know when the next major storm will happen, but they are working to make sure our country is prepared.

Within the next ten years, "Maybe between a one in 10 or one in 20 chance,” Rutledge said clarifying the uncertainty. “(It's) a little tough to say for sure but what we do know, it's not a matter of if it will happen again. It's really just a question of when."

Watson said, "It's a frightening prospect and a very real one."

For more on space weather and solar storms, including the current conditions, visit spaceweather.gov.
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