Solar storm less worrisome than NPR had me think

On my way to work this morning some­body on Morning Edi­tion told me that the largest solar storm in years was “hurtling” through space and could dis­rupt all sorts of earthly sys­tems like the utility grid, my cell phone, and the air­line com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems on my par­ents’ flight to New Orleans.

I was worried.

So I asked someone I thought might know more about this to set my heart at ease. Dr. Cor­dula Robinson, whose exper­tise is in remote sensing (“satel­lite imaging of the earth and other ter­res­trial planets”) has an asteroid named after her (2492: Cordie). If any­thing qual­i­fies a person to talk to me about space, that’s it.

Turns out NPR was being a little sen­sa­tion­alist this time. Robinson said the “solar flare” hit the earth this morning while I was sleeping, before Morning Edi­tion, and that it didn’t cause much trouble.

But still — what is a solar storm and why would NPR want to freak me out about it? Robinson said that the sun goes through a nat­ural eleven year cycle of solar activity, during which our favorite star emits elec­tro­mag­netic radi­a­tion in varying levels of inten­sity. In 2007, Robinson said, we were in some­thing of solar flare lull. But now people are expecting some heavy duty activity for a few years.

Robinson said that looking at solar activity through a tele­scope is one of the few times we’re actu­ally able to look back in time. Light takes 8 min­utes to move from the sun to the earth, so the light you observe on the sun’s sur­face isn’t actu­ally there any more (by the way, I guess there are spe­cial ways of doing this — you don’t look directly at the ball of fire, because that would kill your eyes).

The par­tic­ular solar flare that NPR men­tioned this morning actu­ally left the sun on March 6, said Robinson, and reached us this morning around 2:30am or so.

The video above was cre­ated by NASA and gives the solar flare the close up it deserves. This thing is actu­ally more cool than scary, at this point. I guess I should put my para­noia to bed.