Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Short Sharp Science - Sky shimmers after solar storm

David Shiga, reporter
(Image: Göran Strand)

A massive solar outburst buffeted the Earth yesterday, giving rise to beautiful auroral displays in many places, including Sweden, where this photo was taken by Göran Strand.
Strand took a 360-degree panorama, then wrapped the results into a circle to give this unusual perspective.
Auroras are produced by electrons and protons slamming into Earth's upper atmosphere. Earth's magnetic field funnels the particles towards the north and south poles, so auroras are more common at higher latitudes.
The sun sends a constant stream of particles at Earth in the solar wind, but it occasionally belches out bigger quantities of them, triggering more intense light shows.
During yesterday's outburst, the number of these particles in Earth's vicinity reached their highest level since 2003.
In addition to triggering auroras, such outbursts can also wreak havoc with technology.
Solar storms can interfere with navigation equipment on planes flying polar routes, as is common for flights between North America and Asia. Some airlines rerouted polar flights onto lower-latitude paths yesterday as a precaution.
The most powerful storms can also shut down power grids on the ground, but this storm turned out to be relatively weak – a level 1 storm on a scale where 5 is the most severe, and there were no reports of power outages.

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