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Sun Flare Heads for Earth

By Larry O'Hanlon, News

July 12, 2000 A duo of solar flares Tuesday and Wednesday from a powerful cluster of sunspots is hitting Earth with a one-two punch.

Both flares, from Sunspot Group 9077, sent out blasts of X-rays that were absorbed by Earth's ionosphere, which reacted with blasts of radio interference. The resulting strong radio blackout conditions were rated at a level R-3 on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's space weather scale, where R-5 is the maximum.

Wednesday's Flare
By Friday and Saturday, the super-hot charged particles from the two flares will be reaching Earth, possibly buffeting satellites and bringing a 40 percent chance of a strong geomagnetic storm.

Such storms of charged particles turn the Earth into a giant generator, causing the electrical charging of pipelines and threatening transformers in power grids, especially those at high latitudes. The geomagnetic storms also promise to enhance northern lights, or aurora borealis, displays and possibly makes them visible at lower latitudes.

And that's just Sunspot Group 9077's warm up.

"It's a very dynamic region," said space weather forecaster Larry Combs of the NOAA Space Environment Center in Boulder, Colorado. "It's one of the most complex we've seen so far."

The warnings from the Space Environment Center give satellite operators a chance to turn their satellites to face away from the brunt of the storm. It also gives fair warning to utility companies that electrical currents could start flowing where they are not expected.

What's more, the sunspot group is about to move itself to center stage on the sun, where it can aim its flares directly at Earth.

"We're in the bulls eye," said Jo Ann Joselyn, solar scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "For the next week it's pretty much aimed right at us."

After a remarkably quiet few months, the sun is finally starting to act as expected during the 11th and most active year in its sunspot cycle, said Combs.

"The sun's really taking on the appearance of a solar maximum sun," he said.

Joselyn confirms that so far the solar maximum has been pretty tame. "This solar cycle is taking us back to school," she said, because it has not conformed to earlier solar cycles. "I think it solidifies the idea that we really don't understand what's going on."


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