The radiation from the largest solar flare in four years will hit Earth sometime Thursday or Friday (Feb 24 or 25, 2011).
The sun has finally decided to wake up a little bit. It has been one of the quietest solar minimums in a century. The sun goes through an approximately 11 year cycle. At the quietest period, there are very, very few solar flares and sunspots. The total solar irradiance decreases slightly (meaning the sun is slightly dimmer and puts out less energy… this is a tiny change, like a tenth of a percent).
Of course a solar maximum is just the opposite. Flares and sunspots increase and irradiance increases as well. These do have a noticable effect on Earth.
What does it all mean?
Well, the big flare means that right now, as I type this, a massively huge mass of radiation and sub-atomic particles is flying through space and about to pound into the Earth.
Don’t worry too much though. This flare, even though it’s an X-class flare (the largest) is a relatively weak one. NASA is predicting an increase in the aurora borealis which I doubt will reach Texas, but it is possible.
There may (emphasis on “may”) be some disruption in satellite based services (makes me glad I dropped satellite TV).
On the other hand, this is the beginning of a new solar maximum and this quote from NOAA kind of sums up my feelings on the subject.
“The last time we had a maximum in the solar cycle, the world was a very different place,” noted NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco. “Cell phones are now ubiquitous [and we] rely on them for so many different things.” Others noted a myriad of GPS-dependent technologies that could be brought down by a strong solar flare. http://www.spaceweather.com/
I’m not saying you should drop satellite TV (I say that for other reasons. I’m also not saying that cell phones and GPS won’t work in a few years.
I am saying that we should be prepared for some issues coming over the next five years. Solar flares have disrupted communications and even power grids and our modern society is more dependant on electricity and the internet and interconnected systems than ever before… which makes these solar storms potentially more dangerous than ever before.
Just to be safe, make sure you have batteries, candles, and a small supply of food. This would be the same precaution for any major power outage or storm that could cause it.
As far as the rest. My main concern is that the 5 of the warmest years on record have been in this most recent period of a very low solar minimum. What’s going to happen to the average global temperature when the sun starts really pumping out energy? Answer, it will tend to make storms more powerful, winds stronger, reduce precipitation, etc. All in a time when oil prices are skyrocketing. Although those people investing in wind and solar power should have a good time of it.
One really neat way to keep up-to-date is with NASA’s SOHO Mission (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory). This satellite monitors the sun for us and has some amazing pictures of our local star.