Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Fire in the Sky!

Photo of the 8/2/10 Coronal Mass Ejection From
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory
Departing from our traditional coverage of local events, The Totten Life has decided to take on a global...err...galactic topic. CORONAL MASS EJECTIONS (we are totally nerding out right now).  A coronal mass ejection is basically the sun "burping" (for lack of a better word), and violently releasing plasma and other materials from the surface of the sun.  Now, this enormous solar storm is not simply a solar event that has little impact on us earthlings.  The CME, once initiated travels at speeds close to one million miles per hour and if timed right (as in this case), will impact earth in about 2-3 days. 
  Now don't go and worry just yet...this isn't Armageddon.  The earth's magnetic field acts as a shield to protect us from most of the radiation and magnetic impact. However, for particularly violent CME's and solar storms, we can be impacted...not physically but technologically.  The initial signs a CME is impacting earth is the appearance of  very intense aurora (like the famous Northern Lights) across the globe.  This aurora is basically the visual evidence of the trillions of watts of power created when the CME comes into contact with the magnetosphere (magnetic field surrounding the earth) protecting our delicate bodies.  Once the aurora begin, the next impact could be on our telecommunications system.  As satellites orbiting earth get bombarded with electromagnetic waves, we could experience temporary comunication loss or even see equipment  permanently damaged.  For extremely violent CME's, scientists theorize a potential impact on our power grid, causing long term black outs due to power surges overwhelming our aging infrastructure (as many might be unaware our electric gird in the US and Canada is completely integrated, so potentially a massive surge in one area could trickle down the line blowing transformers we don't have replacements for). 
  Now will this gloom and doom scenario play out in the upcoming days?  Most likely not.  This is a fairly small CME, and will probably only create an amazing light shows for us in the northern hemisphere.  Scientists think that tonight and tomorrow night will be prime viewing time for the Aurora across the Northern United States (mot likely we won't be able to see anything due to the forecasted cloud cover).  However, don't go blowing this off just yet!  The sun operates on an 11 year cycle of surface activity, in which we are currently heading towards the peak of activity.  What this means is these solar flames,storms and CME's may become more common. This doesn't mean the end of the world (or does it), but it does make for some interesting office talk!


Anonymous said...

any idea where a good viewing spot would be in the DC area?

Totten Life said...

There would be any number of places if the weather cooperated. Word on the street is the mall looking north-westerly. But again with the cloud cover it might be nearly impossible to see anything.