Will 2012 Be the Year of the Solar Storm?


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Is there a danger from 2012 coronal mass ejections (CME) or solar storms? Image courtesy of NASA/JPL

The Question: Will 2012 be the year of the solar storm? Stories about “Solar Max” and electric gadget-frying-levels of solar flares are running high in the rumor mill. What is the truth about the solar maximum and solar storms in 2012?

The short answer is: 2012 is will probably not be the “Year of the Solar Storm.” The level of solar storms will actually not be particularly high during 2012. It is not, however, possible to be 100% certain, because predicting solar storms, as with predicting weather on Earth, is difficult and therefore subject to being occasionally wrong.

What Are Solar Storms?

Astronomers have been studying sunspots since Galileo discovered them with his new telescope in the early seventeenth century. The solar magnetic activity, which causes sunspots, also causes a variety other magnetic activity loosely described as solar storms.

Solar flares are one of these manifestations of solar magnetic activity; a small region of the Sun brightens for a short time and releases a significant amount of energy.

Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) are another example of solar storm activity that affects Earth. When the material shot from the Sun in a CME strikes Earth, it interacts with Earth’s magnetic field and causes a geomagnetic storm. In addition to causing aurora borealis (or northern lights), strong geomagnetic storms can affect power grids and communications networks. A strong geomagnetic storm can cause short term blackouts similar to those caused by a severe winter storm. Satellite communications networks have become so ubiquitous in our modern lives that a severe solar/geomagnetic storm could be quite disruptive, but only for a short time. Our Sun does not, however, have solar storms severe enough to cause doomsday-level disruptions.

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