Washington, Mar 8 (): A massive solar flare is racing toward Earth, threatening to unleash a torrent of charged particles that could disrupt power grids, GPS and airplane flights.
Earth’s magnetic field is about to be shaken like a snow globe as the largest solar storm in five years to hit Earth.
Scientists say the storm, which started with a massive solar flare earlier in the week, is growing as it races outward from the sun, expanding like a giant soap bubble. When it strikes early Thursday, the particles will be moving at 4 million mph.
“It’s hitting us right in the nose,” said Joe Kunches, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo.
It means there is a good chance of seeing the northern lights at higher latitudes, if the skies are clear.
The effects will be most intense in polar regions, and aircraft may be advised to change their routings to avoid these areas.
In the UK, the best chance to see them will be on Thursday night, the British Geological Survey says.
The solar storm is likely to last through Friday morning, but the region that erupted can still send more blasts our way, Mr. Kunches said. He said another set of active sunspots is ready to aim at Earth right after this.
The storm is part of Sun’s normal 11-year cycle, which is supposed to reach peak storminess next year. Solar storms don’t harm people, but they do disrupt technology. And during the last peak around 2002, experts learned that GPS was vulnerable to solar outbursts.
Because new technology has flourished since then, scientists could discover that some new systems are also at risk, said Jeffrey Hughes, director of the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling at Boston University.
The storm could trigger communication problems and additional radiation around the north and south poles a risk that will probably force airlines to reroute flights. Some already have done so, Kunches said. Satellites could be affected, too. NASA spokesman Rob Navias said.
In 1989, a strong solar storm knocked out the power grid in Quebec, causing 6 million people to lose power. One huge solar flare in 1972 cut off long-distance telephone communication in the US state of Illinois.