No call for panic over solar flares

If your Global Positioning System (GPS) has been playing up or your internet has been a bit patchy, don’t panic.

And don’t phone the company that’s providing the service because there is probably very little they can do about it.

The truth is planet Earth has been battered by what experts call a solar coronal mass ejection — a solar flare.

Simply described, solar flares are bursts of magnetic energy released as radiation from the sun.

Space weather forecaster Kobus Olckers from the Space Weather Warning Centre at the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory said the first flare was so fast, it was called a plasma bullet.

It raced to earth at a speed of 1 400 kilometres a second.

The solar flare that left the sun on Valentine’s Day and reached earth on Thursday travelled at a more sedate 600 kilometres a second.

“It’s like a huge magnet racing towards the earth,” said Olckers.

According to the Christian Science Monitor the solar flare which left the sun on Valentine’s Day, and its attendant torrent of solar wind — the biggest of its kind in four years — glanced off of the Earth’s North Pole, warping the electric currents in our upper atmosphere and blacking out shortwave radio transmissions in southern China.

More susceptible
Olckers said solar flares affected every part of the earth in different ways.

Predicting how these flares affect the planet is problematic, but Olckers says that because of the increased technology man uses, we have become more susceptible to the effects of solar flares.

“People don’t realise how dependent we are on satellites.”

So how would your GPS be affected. Again simply explained, the signals beamed up from your device become slightly warped, so that the signal sent back to you may place your car a few blocks from where you are actually located.

Powerlines, the internet and anything that carries some form of electrical current are susceptible to the effects of solar flares.

And this latest series of solar flares is by no means the biggest to hit earth.

In 1989 the electric grid in Canada’s Quebec province was put out of action while another solar flare was blamed for the computer crashes that brought trading on Toronto’s stock exchange to a grinding halt.

The strongest solar flare known to have hit this planet occurred in September 1859. It was by all accounts the biggest disruption of the earth’s magnetic field.

Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed. In some instances telegraph operators were shocked.

The New York Times reported on September 3, 1859 that there was so much electromagnetic current in the atmosphere that two telegraph operators disconnected their batteries and sent messages drawing from the current in the atmosphere. They were 180 kilometres apart in Boston and Portland in the state of Maine.

But while there has been talk of what the effect might be on communications, one of the most dramatic effects that many in the Northern Hemisphere have been looking forward to is a brightening of the aurora borealis, the famous northern lights that are normally only seen in the sky over Arctic regions.

The Washington Post newspaper reported that residents in the United States’ capital city could possibly have an opportunity of seeing the phenomenon if they went out into nearby rural areas away from city lights.

In fact in 1859 the aurora borealis could be seen as far south in the Caribbean Sea city of Havana in Cuba.

What should South Africans be concerned about? According to Olckers it would be a wise move to stay out of the sun over the next few days as radiation is at higher levels than normal. And in the meantime be patient with either your GPS and internet. Other than that there is no reason to panic. — Sapa

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