A couple of weeks ago, a massive solar flare released by the sun sent stargazers and space junkies into a twitter (literally I might add!). The amazing image below was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) in extreme ultraviolet light at 131 Angstroms. Scientists say the bursts of radiation hurled by the solar blast were not in the direction of Earth (that’s the good news!), so there’ll be little impact to satellites and communication systems.

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This image provided by NASA shows a solar flare early Tuesday, Aug. 9, the largest in 5 years.

Then this past week, researchers from Stanford University announced that they have developed a method of providing advanced warning of the possible harmful effects to Earth posed by solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejections (CME).  Now what the heck you say is a CME (sounds awful doesn’t it?!??!)  A CME is a massive burst of solar wind, while a solar flare is a sudden brightening observed over the Sun surface or the solar limb, which is interpreted as a large energy release.

This Mornings Solar Flares Image Provided By Nasa
A Stanford graduate student in physics, was able to develop a way to reduce the electronic clutter in the data so he could accurately measure the solar sounds.

Sunspots develop in active solar regions of strong, concentrated magnetic fields and appear dark when they reach the surface of the sun. Eruptions of the intense magnetic flux give rise to solar storms, but until now, no one has had luck in predicting them.

According to the team behind the latest research, if disruptions such as solar flares and mass eruptions could be predicted, protective measures could be taken to shield vulnerable electronics before solar storms strike (and that would be a good thing!). The Stanford researchers have developed a method that allows them to peer deep into the sun’s interior, using acoustic waves to catch sunspots in the early stage of development and giving as much as two days’ warning.  The team is using acoustic waves generated inside the sun by the turbulent motion of plasma and gases in constant motion. In the near-surface region, small-scale convection cells – about the size of California – generate sound waves that travel to the interior of the sun and are refracted back to the surface.

All in a days work and just ONE more thing to add to your company risk assessment and business continuity plans!

What is a solar flare?

A solar flare is an intense burst of radiation on the sun’s surface. Sometimes this eruption ejects clouds of electricity, plasma and magnetic fields through the sun’s atmosphere, or corona, flinging it through space.

What can a solar flare do to earth?
Solar flares are responsible for the electromagnetic phenomenon known as the Northern Lights, or the aurora borealis. A large enough solar flare can damage or destroy satellites, interrupt radio signals, disrupt global positioning systems, and damage power grids. It may sound fanciful, but in 1989, a solar flare damaged a power grid in Quebec, Canada, cutting power for hours to millions of people.

What is the solar flare cycle?

Over several hundred years of observations, scientists have learned that the sun goes through several years of relative dormancy, and then, on average, every 11 years becomes more active for a period of two years or so. That period is just beginning, and is expected to peak around June 2013.

What is a Coronal Mass Ejections (CME)?

CMEs are billion-ton clouds of solar plasma launched by the same explosions that spark solar flares. When they sweep past our planet, they can cause auroras, radiation storms, and in extreme cases power outages. Tracking these clouds and predicting their arrival is an important part of space weather forecasting.

Sources:  Space Weather Prediction Center, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration