Large sections of earth were washed over by an electromagnetic storm during January 2012. The event is also known as a radiation storm in the form of solar photons. It was caused by larger than normal magnetic convulsions on the sun. This so-called sun spot activity mainly affects the polar regions of the earth. However, the magnetic interference it creates can affect all areas of our planet, potentially disrupting electrical systems, including telecommunications. The US National Aeronautical and Space Agency (NASA) and other scientists have warned that nations may experience disruption to electrical systems from increased solar flares in 2012.
The last time the earth was affected by magnetic storms of magnitude comparable to that experienced in January 2012 was as recently as 2005. Very strong sun flare activity was also recorded in 2003. In 1989, solar flare activity caused a blackout of the electrical power grid in Quebec, Canada.
Sun spot activity is largely cyclical. It has been observed to increase significantly every 11 years. Based on this pattern, scientists expect 2012 may see a heightened level of magnetic interference from the sun causing disruption to a range of important operations like electricity power supply, telephone, computer, Internet, radio, radar, television, the global positioning system (GPS) and similar satellite services.
Some appreciation for the massive energy underlying solar storms may be gleaned by noting that the coronal mass ejections associated with solar flare activity violently throws pieces of the veritable solar atmosphere towards earth. Moreover, those sections of solar atmosphere hurtle towards earth at a speed of about 2,000 kilometers per second or 7,200,000,000 kilometers per hour.
Sun flares occur when energy stored in magnetic fields on the sun is suddenly released. The burst of energy causes an explosion of plasma to shoot from the surface of the sun. This in turn triggers a CME. The associated energy is estimated to be equivalent to about 100 billion atomic bombs.
When these solar coronal masses hit earth, it is similar to a huge battering ram puncturing the magnetic field of the earth. That huge push causes the strength of the magnetic field to fluctuate, potentially disrupting electrical systems.
The surge of electromagnetic radiation produced by sun spot activity includes radio waves, x-rays and even gamma rays (the shortest wavelength).
High frequency radio communications are particularly vulnerable. Mariners use these systems extensively all over the globe. Airlines also use them to operate flights over the Arctic zones between the three continents of Asia, Europe and North America.
Sun flare activity can affect the GPS in one of two ways. It can disable the system completely or it can degrade its accuracy. In the later instance, the degradation is unlikely to be immediately evident to the user, rendering its impact potentially more dangerous. The degradation is unlikely to be meaningful for users seeking accuracy to within tens of metres, but it may be meaningful for users seeking accuracy of, say, a meter or less. The disruption could last for several days.
In the USA, the Space Weather Prediction Centre within the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), based in Boulder, Colorado, categorizes flare activity into three levels of severity these being strong, severe and extreme.
Another classification system ranks sun flare activity into five categories based on its strength. These categories are (in ascending order) described by the letters A, B, C M and X. Each letter represents a 10-fold increase in energy output. Class X sun flares represent ten times the power of Class M flares, 100 times the power of Class C flares, and so on.
Class C and smaller sun flare events are too weak to disrupt activity on earth. Class M sun flares may cause short disruption to radio operations at either of the earth poles. However, by far the most relevant sun flare events for earth are Class X and stronger.
Class X further sub-divides into higher strength categories indicated by a numeral. Class X1 is ten times stronger than X, X2 ten times stronger than X1, and so on. The most powerful flare event occurred in 2003 measured at X28, at which point the recording devices maxed out.
Although man has observed the corona of the sun for thousands of years by studying total eclipses of the sun, the existence of sun flare activity was discovered only during the 1970s. The earliest evidence came from observations made during the seventh Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO 7) over the period 1971 to 1973.
Even though expect increased solar flares in 2012 because of their cyclical nature, it is important to appreciate that this activity can occur at any time on a more or less random basis. For example, as recently as August 2011, the NOAA issued a warning advising that flare activity could disrupt satellite communications, including the GPS.