Explosions on the sun on Tuesday morning produced the largest solar flare in five years and sent a 10 billion ton storm cloud hurtling through space at up to 5 million mph.
Joe Kunches of the National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., said the giant cloud of charged particles will likely pass by Earth this week, though it could deliver a "glancing blow" that disrupts radio and satellite communications and electrical power grids.
"It's a big deal, because it really heralds the increase in solar activity that we're going to see over the next three to five years," Kunches said, noting the sun goes through 11-year cycles marked by periods of high and low activity when events like the recent ones occur.
The so-called solar maximum, or period of highest activity, is expected in 2013.
"I don't expect the world to come to an end because of a solar explosion, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't be prepared," said Michael Hesse, chief of NASA's Space Weather Laboratory in Greenbelt, Md.
Kunches agreed but said Western Pennsylvania is "far enough south where a lot of ill effects just plain aren't going to get to you. But because of the interconnectedness of the electrical grid, you could have some sensitivity to an outage in the Northeast."
The solar storm clouds -- known as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs for short -- present the biggest concern. If they strike Earth's electromagnetic magnetosphere, it's a "punch in the nose" that causes the magnetic field to wobble, shake and send electromagnetic currents everywhere, Kunches said.
It can wreak havoc on satellites used for communications and global positioning systems; knock out high-frequency radio communications, which airplanes use to fly polar routes; and overload electrical grids and blow out transformers.
Comcast spokesman Bob Grove said no customers in Western Pennsylvania reported any problems during last week's storms.
A solar storm in 1989 knocked out power across Quebec for nine hours and damaged transformers in the Canadian province, New Jersey and Great Britain. Service problems occurred across the United States. An 1859 storm, the most powerful on record, was considered three times more powerful than the 1989 storm. It knocked out telegraph wires, shocked telegraph workers and started fires.
Unlike the mid-19th century, almost every aspect of modern-day life is in some way tied to electrical power. A National Academy of Sciences report released two years ago said a storm of the magnitude of the one in 1859 could cause up to $2 trillion in damage and take up to 10 years to fix.
Luke van der Zel of the Electric Power Research Institute said in a prepared statement that "the overall goal (of the industry) is to provide a portfolio of research to make the system and equipment more resilient and provide for rapid system transformation."
Ray Dotter, spokesman for PJM Interconnection, which runs the transmission line for Pennsylvania, 12 other states and Washington, said the company has emergency procedures in place for solar storms, including reducing the flow of electricity into the line to prevent it from becoming overloaded. It has enacted them twice since September 2005.
"This is one of the classic low-probability, high-risk events. There are a lot of proposals out there to safeguard the transmission system, but only so much money we can spend. And by we, I mean the customers. They're the ones that foot the bill," Dotter said.
Todd Schneider, spokesman for FirstEnergy Corp., which runs the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station in Shippingport, said if a storm interrupted service at the nuclear plant, it could run for seven days on diesel-powered backup generators and ship in additional fuel as needed.
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