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Solar storms mean turbulent 'space weather' over Canada

This handout image provided by NASA shows a solar flare heading toward Earth.


Canada is entering a busy stretch of solar storms that will amplify the Northern Lights, with one major " space weather" event expected to hit the atmosphere over North America Thursday morning.

Scientists say such storms are typically common, with about 200 or so expected over each 11-year solar cycle, but Canada has been in a slow streak lately.

In April, 2010, a four-year string without a major solar storm was broken, said Larisa Trichtchenko, a scientist with Natural Resources Canada's geomagnetic laboratory. The storms are now expected to ramp up again. "A maximum [season of storms]is coming," she said.

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The American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that Thursday's storm is expected to be the largest in five years, but some scientists say it isn't a freak occurrence. It's the five slow years that were uncommon, the Canadians say, not Thursday's storm.

In theory, solar storms could affect power systems, planes and satellite paths. In practice, however, the storms typically mean little more for the average person than brighter, stronger Northern Lights, or aurora borealis.

1) What are these storms?

Solar storms are triggered by eruptions on the sun that send a blast of light (or solar flare) to earth and, between one and four days later, a surge of charged particles. On Tuesday evening, around 7 p.m. (ET), a solar eruption took place.

"Literally, the outer solar atmosphere gets blown off when the sun erupts, and that consists not of light but of charged particles," said NOAA scientist Joseph Kunches. The light hit Earth minutes after the explosion Tuesday evening, while the charged particles – known as the coronal mass ejection – are expected to arrive in the early hours of Thursday morning, triggering the storm.

2) The Northern Lights

More geomagnetic activity is a boost to the Northern Lights. Scientists believe 2012 will be a good year for viewing them, and Thursday will be no exception.

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Storms can, in some cases, push the lights down to areas where they're not normally seen, according to NOAA. However, Canadian forecasters (at the aptly named Space Weather Canada) think it will simply intensify the Northern Lights. "I think that most likely we'll see them in places we usually see [them]" Dr. Trichtchenko said.

Aurora viewing is forecast to be strongest through northern parts of provinces and across the territories in the dark morning hours of Thursday morning.

3) Your GPS and radio

The jolt of charged particles, and ensuing electromagnetic storm, disrupts radio waves and satellite transmissions. A basic GPS system in a phone or car won't be affected, but surveyors and industrial workers who use precision GPS equipment could see wonky results on Thursday, NOAA warned.

People using shortwave radios will see them become unpredictable. "Sometimes it doesn't work at all, and other times it works better than you ever thought," said Mr. Kunches, calling the effects "funny stuff."

4) Airplanes and power grids

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On a broader scale, such storms can affect power grids – particularly in Canadian shield provinces, most prominently Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. In 1989, a solar storm left six million Quebeckers without power for nine hours, but such incidents are rare.

"It is certainly something that we prepare for," said Alexandra Campbell, a spokeswoman for Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator.

Spikes in electrical currents could fry equipment. To safeguard the power system and avoid blackouts, the IESO could run less power through an area where geomagnetic spikes were common, to ensure power lines and transformers aren't overloaded, Ms. Campbell said. The effect, however, isn't too significant. Solar-storm activity was already ramping up Wednesday, "but [it]was just a normal day," Ms. Campbell said.

Meanwhile, officials in the North say it's not so bad. "We have never noticed any effect from previous solar storms," said Robert Schmidt, a senior manager with the Northwest Territories Power Corporation.

In the skies, airlines simply make slight alterations to flight paths to avoid sending massive planes through a geomagnetic storm. At Air Canada, only Toronto-to-Asia direct flights are seeing routes altered, shifted slightly to the south. "There is minimal impact to Air Canada's flights," spokeswoman Angela Mah said in an e-mail.

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