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Particles from powerful solar flare hit Earth

Published: Friday, Feb. 18 2011 3:20 p.m. MST

CBS News reported Friday that the "sun let loose its most powerful eruption in more than four years Monday night (Feb. 14), disrupting radio communications in China and generating concern around the world."

However, Dean Persnell, project scientist at NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory at Goddard Space Flight Center, states in a video on The Week that the Earth is only being hit by the edge of the particles of the Class X-2 solar flare, while the full force of the particles is passing behind the planet.

The particles have "glanced off the Earth's northern pole, lighting up auroras and disrupting some radio communications," Persnell told AFP.

The China Meteorological Administration said the solar storm "jammed shortwave radio communications in the southern part of the country," according to AFP.

AFP also reports that "a direct hit from a CME (coronal mass ejection) could trigger a huge geomagnetic storm as incoming particles bounce off the Earth's geomagnetic field, blacking out radio communications, interfering with GPS navigational systems, in theory even causing power outages."

CBS News' Mike Wall notes that "a true monster storm has the potential to wreak havoc on a global scale, knocking out communications systems, endangering satellites and astronauts and causing perhaps trillions of dollars in damages."

The Earth has been hit by huge solar storms before, Bob Rutledge, head of the forecast office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center, tells CBS News. "One of the most powerful hit us in 1859, a blast that Rutledge estimates may have been 30 times more powerful than Monday's event, though it's tough to put hard numbers on such comparisons."

According to Rutledge, "the 1859 storm shorted out telegraph wires, causing fires in North America and Europe, and spawned spectacular auroras — the light shows visible near Earth's poles — bright enough to read by, according to some accounts."

A storm of that size could be devastating today. "A recent report by the U.S National Academy of Sciences found that such a severe storm could cause up to $2 trillion in initial damages by crippling communications on Earth and fueling chaos around the world," Wall reports.

Paul Rincon writes that other, more recent storms have also had an impact. A storm in 1972 "knocked out long-distance telephone communication" in Illinois, and in 1989, another storm knocked out power to 6 million people in Quebec.

Another effect of the solar flare is an increase in northern light activity. CBC reports that "a blast of plasma from the sun hit the Earth overnight, creating a brilliant display of lights across the skies of northern Canada." This was the result of three solar flares between Feb. 13 and Feb. 15, including the Valentine's Day flare.

CBC explains that "the northern lights or aurora borealis are caused by the interaction of charged particles from the sun with the Earth's magnetic field. That excites oxygen and nitrogen in the Earth's upper atmosphere and causes them to light up."

This may be only the beginning of the solar storms. Rutledge tells CBS News that "the sun works on an 11-year activity cycle, and it's currently gaining strength." NASA predicts peak activity around the summer of 2013.

Valentine's Day X-Class Flare video from NASA

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