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Solar storm, biggest in years, hits Earth

March 8, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
A massive solar storm hit the Earth's magnetic field on Thursday, but scientists say the planet might have lucked out in escaping its possible effects.

Hours after the storm arrived, officials said there were no reports of problems with power grids, GPS, satellites or other technologies that are often disrupted by solar storms. But that can still change as the storm shakes the planet's magnetic field.

Ahead of the storm, scientists warned that it could cause a wide range of issues, including communication system problems as well as more radiation in our North and South poles. This is why many airlines rerouted to avoid any breakdown in communication.

The storm started with a massive solar flare earlier in the week.

"Periodically, the sun lets loose an explosion in its upper atmosphere, and we see this as an incredible brightening, and it's a huge release of energy from the sun," said Dr. Ed Krupp, the director of the Griffith Park Observatory.

As a result of that flare, a huge cloud of charged particles resembling a large soap bubble headed toward Earth at the rate of 4 million mph. Forecasters say the effects of the solar storm, if any, could linger through Friday morning. But not to worry - scientists say the charged particles caused by the storm on the surface of the sun do not pose a danger to people.

Experts say the region of the sun that erupted can still send more blasts toward us, and another set of active sunspots is ready to aim at Earth right after this solar storm.

Such storms in the past knocked out power grids, but scientists say this is not likely to happen with this storm. You may, however, notice your GPS system acting up or not working at all. In 1989, a strong solar storm knocked out the power grid in Quebec, causing 6 million people to lose power.

The solar storm is the largest we've seen in five years. It's part of the sun's normal 11-year cycle, which is expected to peak in late 2013. During the last peak around 2002, experts learned that GPS was vulnerable to solar outbursts.

"You've got high-energy particles that are passing through the Earth's magnetic field in, of course, the area where satellites are orbiting. All of those electronic devices can get, in a sense, get short circuited by these charged particles," Krupp said.

Astronomers say the sun has been relatively quiet for some time, and the storm, while strong, may seem fiercer because Earth has been lulled by several years of weak solar activity.

The Northern Lights are expected to be more noticeable, peaking sometime Thursday night, dipping as far south as the Great Lake states or even lower. However, scientists say a full moon will make the lights more difficult to see.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.