Discovery May Help Stop the Sun From Putting Out Lights on Earth

Scientists led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research believe they have a discovery that will help them predict “monster” solar flares, lessening the risk the sun will break down power grids or knock out satellite navigation systems.

Key are magnetized bands in the sun’s atmosphere that have the ability to kink, warp and buckle upwards, said Scott McIntosh, lead author and director of NCAR’s High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, Colorado. They cause sunspot activity that can be used to predict when flares will erupt, he said.

The group’s research, published Tuesday in Nature Communications, shows the sun is entering such a phase when monster solar flares are likely, McIntosh said in a telephone interview.

“If you’re running a satellite or you’re in the military, you really want to know when the sun is going to blast off a flare,” he said.

The consequences of a massive solar flare can ripple across society. In 1972, one was blamed for knocking out long-distance telephone service across Illinois and, in 1989, another touched off a nine-hour power outage in Quebec, leaving about 6 million people without electricity, according to the National Aeronautics & Space Administration’s website.

Carrington Event

An eruption recorded in 1859 by British astronomer Richard Carrington, and known since as the Carrington Event, electrified telegraph lines, shocking operators, and created an aurora seen in Cuba and Hawaii, NASA said.

In addition to shutting down power grids and satellite navigation, flares could force planes to divert from some routes to avoid added radiation risks for passengers, according to the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center.

McIntosh likens magnetic bands in the sun’s atmosphere to the Earth’s jet stream, a river of air that encircles the planet.

These bands start at the high latitudes of the sun and carry opposite magnetic polarity. When they are far apart, the occurrence of sunspots is at its maximum, McIntosh said.

When they get closer to each other and to the sun’s equator, the instability caused by conflicting polarity increases. And as two bands from opposing hemispheres approach each other, new bands are born closer to the poles.

Increased Instability

Then there are four bands alternating between positive and negative polarity spread across the sun’s surface -- and that instability can lead to the giant flares, McIntosh said. While McIntosh and his colleagues have written about the bands before, what they do and their impact on solar flares are at the heart of Tuesday’s paper.

“This is all really new stuff,” McIntosh said. “It was all developed in the last three or four years and some of it may be crazy.”

The research has the potential to improve forecasts of space weather events, which could mean saving millions of dollars and maintaining modern conveniences, according to McIntosh. Power companies that have to shut down grids to protect them against massive flares would benefit from more accurate predictions.

McIntosh said he’d like to see the creation of a series of cheap satellites to watch weather on the sun the way it’s tracked on Earth. Given our fixed orbit, Earth-based observations don’t have a great vantage point.

“If the projections are right then this needs to be followed up,” McIntosh said.

It may just be what keeps the lights on in your house.

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