History Making Sun Storms Ahead
November 18, 2003
Denver-- Shining brightly for over 4 billion years and rising unfailingly
every morning, even astronomers can take the sun for granted. Among the
100 billion stars in the Milky Way, the Sun is rather lackluster.
However, the sun certainly is demanding everyone's attention now, three
weeks into what could be the most dramatic and unexpected cycle of eruptions
ever observed from its seething, bubbling surface.
There have been at least six salvos since October 19 and the fireworks
could reach new heights by Thanksgiving, causing disruptions for the nation's
busiest air travel holiday
"There's been nothing quite like this," said Bill Murtagh, a
space weather forecaster for the National Oceanic and Space Administration
in Boulder, Colorado. "Another big blow is not what anyone needs."
The biggest solar storm to affect Earth in the current cycle was on October
28. Little damage occurred, largely because it was forecast, and electric
utilities and satellite companies took precautions.
Even with precautions taken it caused a blackout in Sweden, damaged two
Japanese satellites and upset radio communications and navigation systems
for jets and ships. Airlines in the northern latitudes flew lower to protect
passengers from extra doses of radiation. Scientists worry that a new
round of eruptions could do more of the same or worse.
Each solar burst hurls into space huge clouds of super heated, charged
particle clouds that are 13 times the size of Earth. One explosion on
November 4, ranks as the most powerful solar flare to be recorded by orbiting
instruments- although it was pointed away from Earth.
"This period will go into the history books as one of the most dramatic,"
said Paal Brekke, deputy project scientist for SOHO, a joint U.S.-European
observatory between Earth and the sun.
What will the sun do next? Astronomers can only watch and wait.
The sun is not solid, but a dense and torrid ball of gas. It rotates in
sections at different latitudes as if the layers of a cake were turning
at different speeds, with the equator's layer moving faster than the poles.
The sun's luminosity can change slightly during sunspot cycles, possibly
affecting Earth's climate sand, some argue, contributing to global warning.
If true, those details will take years to work out.