This view of the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) shows a sinuous looping band of airglow above the Earth Limb.
photo courtesy of NASA Image Exchange

Strong solar activity can lead to geomagnetic storms, which are created when charged solar particles hit the earthís magnetic field with enough force to bend it. These storms can lead to spectacular visual effects, but they also can have catastrophic effects on electrical systems, animals and our health.

During the 2001 solar maximum, residents as far south as Mexico got the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the northern lights, or aurora borealis, normally seen only at latitudes around the Arctic Circle. Many people around the world sighted bright red glowing skies with thin, light green streaks shimmering on the horizon. From our view, it simply looks like a light show, but an event like this actually means that the earthís magnetic field is being pummeled by solar winds. The greater the intensity of these winds, the farther south the geomagnetic disturbance spreads, giving people an opportunity to check out the northern lights.

But also as a result of geomagnetic storms, technology we use every day can be destroyed in a matter of seconds. Here, the ability to predict space weather becomes crucial; it allows us to prepare for and minimize solar damage to the systems upon which we rely. During the last solar peak in 1989, six million people in Quebec were left without electricity for nine hours, and in New Jersey, a multi-million-dollar power transformer melted down. At the same time, Minnesota residents lost their local radio programs and found themselves tuned into highway patrol messages from California.

 

geomagnetic storm

A geomagnetic storm occurs when unusually strong surges of solar wind (charged particles from the sun) hit the Earth. This effect causes variations in the magnetic field which surrounds the Earth.

 

Satellites can fall back into the Earthís atmosphere and burn up as a result of strong solar activity. By being aware of this, corrective action such as boosting the satellites to keep them in orbit can be taken. Satellites can also develop electrical problems; damaged GPS navigation satellites can throw off GPS calculations by several miles.

In order to schedule their work, geologic surveyors studying the Earthís magnetic field for oil, gas and mineral deposits need information on geomagnetic storms. Some surveyors prefer to work when the Earthís magnetic field is quiet; while others enjoy storm interference because they claim it enables them to see better.

In order to schedule their work, geologic surveyors studying the Earthís magnetic field for oil, gas and mineral deposits need information on geomagnetic storms. Some surveyors prefer to work when the Earthís magnetic field is quiet; while others enjoy storm interference because they claim it enables them to see better.

Electricity providers have to measure whether any disturbances will affect their electric lines. If problems are expected, they can reroute more power through other lines. The same goes for oil pipeline managers. Pipelines can be affected because the pipesí corrosion rate increases during geomagnetic storms. Solar storm warnings help managers monitor the effect on their pipelines and take appropriate action to dampen the damage.

Meanwhile, for scientists who study the ins and outs of the sun, thereís much to speculate about. Scientists have noted that the sunís energetic output does vary during the 11-year cycle. Studying the growth of plants and trees is one way they speculate about the effects of the sunís energetic output on the Earthís climate. By examining a treeís rings of growth, they believe that if the sunís energy decreases by even a tenth of a percent, this can mean a change in the treeís rate of growth.

An eruption from a solar flare can be as dangerous to astronauts in outer space as any nuclear blast is to humans on earth.
photo courtesy of NASA Image Exchange

Ever wonder how animals migrate from one place to the other? They donít have road maps like we do, but they do have their own built-in compasses. Inside their nerve cells, they have a mineral called magnetite, which scientists believe is one tool that animals use to get from Point A to B, and back again. Dolphins, whales and other migratory animals (such as homing pigeons) have this. When homing pigeons have flown away during geomagnetic storms, they have sometimes not returned, leaving scientists to surmise that their navigational ability was affected by the storms.

An eruption from a solar flare can be as dangerous to astronauts in outer space as a nuclear blast is to humans on earth. Astronauts who are caught outside in space during a violent storm can die ≠ their spacesuits wouldnít be enough protection. Avoiding these storms is the best option even when inside a spacecraft. Pilots of supersonic aircraft also need to be aware of solar activity, especially when they are flying above the polar caps - radiation from solar storms is stronger here because solar particles tend to travel along magnetic field lines to the North and South Poles.