Solar storms continue above, few effects felt below

Sky watchers do have an increased chance of seeing the lights over the days and months ahead

Signs of spring are signalling the end of winter weather, but storms of a much greater magnitude are still in the forecast as the second solar storm of the year hit the Earth this week.

The extraterrestrial weather – caused by solar flares followed one- to two-days later by highly-charged proton-rich particle clouds – are strong enough to theoretically affect satellites and electronics once they collide with the planet’s magnetic field. However, there is little to no chance their effects will be felt.

“There’s nothing to be scared of, nothing to be afraid of,” said Dmitry Monin, astronomer for the National Research Council of Canada on West Saanich Road. “It’s something we’ve been through many, many times. It’s something we know is going to happen and it will repeat itself in another 11 years.”

Monin is referring to the sun’s 11-year activity cycle, characterized by increased fluctuations of solar flares. Even during times of high activity, such as the current period, effects of the solar storms are very rare. The type of Global Positioning System operations that the storms may affect, Monin said, are most likely those needed for extremely accurate processes. For example, those involved with precise drilling – not the average smartphone user’s mapping needs. Similarly, the risk of health complications are limited to those with preexisting heart conditions that may potentially be affected by a disturbance to the planet’s magnetic field.

Airplanes are generally rerouted around the North Pole during a solar storm as a precaution.

“The sun has been been in a low active rate for years,” Monin said. “It’s not surprising that we see more and more solar flares happening.”

A solar storm in 1989 caused a massive power grid failure in Quebec – something that wasn’t expected during the last two storms. A more common side effect are visible aurora borealis outside of the usual northern regions and as far south as Mexico. Sky watchers do have an increased chance of seeing the lights over the days and months ahead, though clear skies and the brightness of the moon play a large role in catching the phenomenon live.

The last solar storm to hit the Earth began on Jan. 19.

nnorth@saanichnews.com