Solar Flare

Photo courtesy of NASA

This Week's Solar Flares Will Affect Your Electronics

By R. Alan Clanton | published September 11, 2014 |
Thursday Review editor

There is no need to adjust your television set or complain to your cell phone provider. Indeed, millions of cable TV and satellite TV customers have heard this explanation before. To most of those who have called in the past to complain, the excuses sound lame.

But here’s the shocker to all you skeptics out there: it’s all true.

Solar flares and intense solar activity can disrupt electronic things—most especially television reception, wireless communications, radio transmissions, and dozens of other forms of electronic activity. When they are large enough, solar flares can even disrupt the power grid.

So get prepared. If you were annoyed this week by those protests staged by dozens of web-based companies who deliberately slowed-down internet speeds and services to make a point about a recent FCC decision regarding net neutrality, then you might be even more frustrated by what will happen to your TV reception and your wireless phone over the next few days.

Astronomers and meteorologists worldwide observed one of the largest solar flares in recent memory this week. Solar flares (in tech terminology: coronal mass ejections) are normal and even cyclical, and—along with sunspots—occur on a seasonal pattern. Traditionally the flares and sunspots cause only minor disruptions to cable and satellite service, but can also briefly affect radio transmissions, internet service and phone service. Cable TV companies and phone companies often receive a surge in calls and complaints during these periods.

But the flare observed this week is not only larger than anything scientists have seen lately, it is also pointed directly toward Earth. Though inconsequential to humans and animal life, large solar flares have the potential to create unpredictable problems to electronics. And there are few reliable ways to forecast exactly when those effects will start, and when they will stop.

This type of flare produces what is known as a “geomagnetic storm,” and scores of weather services and international scientific organizations suggest that we should all be braced for the results. Aside from the disruptions to electronics, there are benefits as well: this size storm can produce dazzling light shows in the sky as the energy passes through the upper atmosphere. Millions of people on Earth may get to watch auroras, depending on cloud cover and other conditions. Viewing will be best in a wide tract of area across the upper part of North America and the northern reaches of Russia and Scandinavia. Americans in places like Wisconsin, Michigan and Montana may have the best viewing. Despite the storm’s intensity, it is not likely that people in the lower part of the U.S. will see much activity in the sky.

The flare was large enough that scientific agencies gave the event a name: Sunspot AR2158. The eruption was measured as being as high on the flare scale as they can get, and the ejection lasted for more than six hours. Meteorologists categorized the AR2158 event as an X1 flare, the strongest classification. The flare sent energy from the storm site hurtling into space—and toward Earth—at speeds of roughly 2.2 million mph.

Radio transmissions, cable television, satellite TV, cell phones and some landline phone operations will be the services most likely affected by the storm’s impact. Long distance services, particularly international calls, may also be affected for brief periods.

The initial flare, which was observed on Tuesday, was followed by a secondary flare which was almost as large as the first. This means that the effects may last for several days on Earth.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Do Not Adjust Your Modem; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; Sept. 10, 2014.