Friday, July 13, 2012

Solar CME Coming - Grid Troubles Coming...Or Not

Seems Old Sol woke up from its pretty anemic solar cycle yesterday and let fly an X 1.4 flare and CME directly at us.  It's the first X-class flare in a while and "the biggest of the summer" - although with summer about 3 weeks old, that doesn't mean much.  More specifically, it is nowhere near as powerful as the 5.4 flare we had in March, which caused some cool aurora displays - along with some folks' panties getting in a bunch.

What's kind of interesting here is that NOAA, who does the official space weather forecast, and NASA are quite at odds with each other over the expected impacts of the CME due on Saturday.  As the Washington Post reports (at that link):
This blast of charged particles, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), is forecast to ignite a geomagnetic storm on Earth over the weekend. NOAA predicts it will be minor, maybe moderate. NASA says it will be moderate to severe.
Personally, as someone who observes this sort of stuff and its effects, I'm going with NOAA: minor, maybe moderate.  Auroras visible south of Michigan, say, but probably not into the deep south.  It seems to take an X6 flare to get auroras visible in Dixie, and an epic flare to get them down here into Florida.  But why should NASA and NOAA differ so much?  It's not like NASA should have data that they hoard and don't pass on to NOAA.  Quoting again:
The differences in these predictions raise the question why two government agencies aren’t coordinating and issuing one clear, consistent forecast along with estimates of the uncertainty.

Consider this scenario: A hurricane is approaching the East Coast. What if one U.S. government agency predicted the storm would make landfall as a category 1 to maybe category 2 storm, at worst, while another agency forecast the storm to reach the category 2, 3 or even 4 level? Imagine the widespread confusion that would ensue. How would anyone know if and how to prepare?
In terms of effects, if you go with NOAA's predictions, you're not likely to see any effects other than some pretty lights in the sky, if you're out in a really dark spot; if you're a ham, HF propagation might be disturbed, giving higher noise levels or shutting down HF.  (Some of this happened yesterday).  If NASA's predictions are right, the auroras will come farther south, radio will be disturbed more, and - this might be important - satellites may need to be re-oriented or shut down.  Maybe the reason NASA is going for the worst possible prediction is to protect satellite operators better.  After all, NASA doesn't loose any revenue if satellite operators shut down when they really didn't need to.

I need to point out that space weather isn't as well understood as earthly weather, and predicting rain  messes us up often enough.  I'm not calling them stupid.  I just think they should be working a little closer together on this.
Image from Wikipedia - showing the CME blasting out of the sun, interacting with the earth's magnetosphere and causing auroras at both poles. 

For the record, NASA is saying:
“Simulations indicate that the leading edge of the CME will reach Earth at about 2012-07-14T09:17Z (plus minus 7 hours). The roughly estimated expected range of the Kp maximum (Kp is a measure of geomagnetic disturbance levels ranging 0 - 9) is 6-8 (moderate to severe).”  (note: that's 5:17 AM EDT +/-7 hours)
and NOAA said:
"The latest model run now indicates the CME associated with yesterday’s R3 (Strong) Radio Blackout event will impact the earth’s magnetic field around 9:00 a.m. EDT (1300 UTC) on Saturday, July 14. SWPC is forecasting category G1 (Minor) Geomagnetic Storm activity then, with a chance of G2 (Moderate) levels at times through July 15."
To reiterate, I bet with NOAA on this one.  No damage to the grid or any of the dire scenarios that get talked about. 


  1. And by the same token, nobody can seem to agree how big (or small) Cycle 24 will be.
    Just in case HF goes deaf, I just finished putting my 6 Meter ground-plane back up.

    1. Yeah... I'm not saying it's worthless to make predictions. That's an excellent way to ensure you understand something. It's just that maybe they should keep the predictions to themselves until they get a little better. Or at least warn us what the chances they're right are.

      Take the last solar minimum. It was the longest and deepest minimum since 1913, and nobody got it right. As result, every few months they slid the start of the next cycle out to the right.

      There were a couple of guys at Kitt Peak solar observatory (NOAO) who had been looking at some characteristics of sunspots and said, "if this continues, there won't be any sunspots by 2015". The jury is still out on that one. There have been prolonged minima before (Dalton, Maunder, etc.) but there was never this level of quality of observation done before they hit. No one really knows what an oncoming minimum looks like, or if it would appear spot free with modern instruments.

      All sunspot minima correspond to cold periods. The most famous is the maunder minimum corresponding to the Little Ice Age and the famous paintings (Currier and Ives??) of Londoners ice skating on the Thames.

  2. Absolutely!
    James Burke in his "Connections" series showed some of the paintings, and said the same thing.
    As of right now, 15 Meters (21MHz) is wide open, world-wide, along with a few stations on 12 Meters (24MHz).
    6 Meters (50MHz) was open last night to the North West, and I'm monitoring the beacon sub-band right now to see if anything pops up.

  3. All was well here. I chatted with a couple friends, a young couple I shoot with and spend time with, when I got in. They said, "what if we had the kind of storm that caused power outages for days, what would people do?"

    I love my blog, because I love to write and take photos, and chat with people of like minds, but I would live without it. My friends off blog, even if they are bloggers themselves, are my life, not this. I don't myspace or facebook or tweet and I'm more likely to pick up a phone than text someone, ever. But so many people are electronically and electrically connected to the world, I wonder if they'd survive, figurtiely, and literally, without it.

  4. It appears that the extent of the show was Auroras visible from Iowa City. Since this is pretty much on the line of "south of Michigan", I'm going to claim the win on my prediction of the effects of this CME. At least I was closer than NASA.

    SiGraybeard @ work - still with the defective display.