1st wave of sun storm energy reaches Earth, disrupts radio waves

June 09, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The first squalls of a geomagnetic storm described as "severe" by space weather forecasters swept past Earth yesterday.

The 1.6-million-mph impact by the cloud of ionized gas and electromagnetic energy rattled electric power grids in the Northeast, and at least one commercial satellite briefly lost its bearings.

"On a scale from zero to nine, we've moved into the sevens - severe levels," said David M. Speich, a space scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Environment Center -the space equivalent of the National Hurricane Center.

The storm began Tuesday with two "X-class" solar flares, the strongest. X-ray emissions from them blacked out shortwave radio communications for up to an hour.

Then a "coronal mass ejection" blasted billions of tons of electrified gas and magnetic energy toward Earth. The first shock from that blast rammed Earth's magnetic field at 5:41 a.m. yesterday.

Another blast was expected to strike Earth overnight, the result of a smaller flare and mass ejection at 11:45 a.m. Wednesday.

"It's clearly something that bears watching over the next few days. There's lots of junk in the pipeline from the sun at present," said John Kappenman, of Metatech Applied Power Systems. The firm helps industrial clients prepare for solar events.

Marylanders hoping to see a rare, mid-latitude display of northern lights were advised to find a dark spot and look north about midnight nightly through Monday morning if skies are clear.

The solar disturbances are part of the sun's regular 11-year cycle of activity, which peaks this year.

These are getting more attention because it is the first "solar maximum" that scientists have been able to monitor closely, thanks to a growing network of research satellites and geomagnetic ground stations.

Society is also more dependent than ever before on electrical grids, satellite communications and navigation systems that are vulnerable to damage from such storms.

The solar blasts pose no direct health threat. Earth's magnetic field remains an effective shield against solar radiation.

The buffeting of Earth's magnetic field, however, can induce damaging surges of direct current (DC) in long-distance transmission lines and power transformers designed for alternating current.

As the current storm began, "we saw things start to chatter with respect to DC levels. And we had a small peak I'd classify as moderate," said David W. Fugate, president of Electric Research and Management Inc.

He said his utility clients were rushing this week to complete maintenance on vital generators and transformers needed to help manage any threat.

The X-ray flares Tuesday and Wednesday triggered radio blackouts strong enough to disrupt maritime, aircraft and amateur shortwave communication.

Satellites that use Earth's magnetic field to orient themselves in space can get "lost" when that field is moved by a solar storm.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.