Solar flare: How a solar storm could affect you

March 8, 2012

The sun has been quite active lately, and the recent solar storm is expected to intensify Thursday morning, The Washington Post reported. All that solar activity could have an impact on your gadgets — here’s a quick look at what you can expect.

What’s going on?: According to The Post’s Brian Vastag and Jason Samenow, the storm is the result of strong flares released Sunday and Tuesday by a particularly “potent sunspot.” The flares set off a major wave of plasma that reached the Earth on Tuesday, assaulting the Earth’s magnetic field.

What does that do?: Certain things such as GPS satellites, electronic power grids and airline flight patterns are affected by side-effects of solar flares.

How does this affect my GPS?: According to the Space Weather Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, GPS satellites could be disrupted by the radiation from the flares and increased drag from the additional solar activity could up the chances that your GPS will calculate that you’re in the wrong location. According to Discovery News, this drag happens because the solar flare energizes the outer layers of the Earth’s atmosphere and causes the atmosphere to expand. When it does, the gas movement slows down the momentum of objects in low-Earth orbit.

How does this affect electrical grids?: The energy put out by the flare could damage electrical equipment and jam some communications. For example, in 1989, a particularly large solar flare blacked out the grid of the entire province of Quebec for 12 hours, according to NASA. The blackout also affected New York Power and the New England Power Pool.

How does this affect flights?: The solar storms have already caused some disruptions in flights, as airlines decided to reroute certain flights over the Arctic. The changes were said to add about 15 minutes to flights, and were moved because of the way that the solar storm can disrupt communications, Reuters reported.

Is it dangerous?: Vastag and Samenow report that the Earth’s magnetic field will repel much of the radiation generated by the storms, so people on the ground should be safe.

Will this keep happening?: NASA officials say that the sun is going through an active phase in its weather cycle, which is expected to peak in 2013.

Related stories:

Onslaught of solar flares bring space weather storms to Earth

Solar storms ramp up, take aim at Earth

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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