“Super Tuesday” on the Sun

by Dave Hennen
CNN Senior Meteorologist

Scientist Joseph Kunches from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder Colorado is calling the latest CME or Coronal Mass Ejection from the sun, the equivalent in space weather terms to “Super Tuesday” in politics.

The sun is currently in a cycle of increased sun spots.  This is part of an 11 year cycle that is expected to peak over the next year.  The magnetic field in sunspots store energy that is released in solar flares.  These flares are intense bursts of radiation that get ejected into space.  Coronal mass ejections are often times associated with solar flares, and it’s the CME that can cause problems if it is directed at the earth as was the case over the last couple of days.

NOAA measures various aspects of the ejections that occur.   There are four main components that define solar activity.  Solar flares, coronal mass ejections, high speed solar wind and solar energetic particles.  As an event occurs some of the particles reach earth almost immediately.  These highly charged particles are more of a threat to space craft and astronauts than to us on earth.  The bulk plasma from the CME can take between 30-72 hours to reach the earth.  This can cause interruptions to power grids, GPS systems,  and some flights that are near the poles.  The one positive is the brilliant Aurora’s (Northern and Southern Lights).  These occur as the particles from the ejection interact with the Earth’s magnetic field creating brilliant displays.

NOAA calls this particular CME the strongest since December of 2006.  The equivalent of 10 billion tons of highly charged particles are hurtling at a rate of 3 to 4 million miles an hour towards the earth.  The peak of this latest solar storm is expected to hit tomorrow morning, and gradually diminish by Friday morning.

NOAA has a chart that classifies these solar storms.  This latest CME is forecast to rate as a “strong G3” Geomagnetic Storm, a measure of the disturbances in the geomagnetic field that helps protect the earth from dangerous particles, and a “severe S4” Solar Radiation Storm which is a measure of radiation that occurs when the numbers of energetic particles increases.

The Space Prediction Center expects that we are in a favorable pattern for at least the next week to potentially bring more solar storms to the earth.  What is not known is the magnitude of how strong future events may be.  What is expected is quite a show tonight and tomorrow night from the Northern Lights which may be visible as far south as Michigan and Illinois.

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