In the news: 2013 – The Year of Solar Flare


The sun erupted with an X1.7 class solar flare on May 12th, 2013. This is a blend of two images of the flare from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. One image shows the light in the 171-angstrom wavelength and the other show the 131 angstroms.

Are science fiction literature authors correct when they write about solar flares causing Earth’s communications to fail and causing catastrophes worldwide or is this simply a convenient plot device? The year 2013 has seen the most solar flares since 2003 because the Sun’s magnetic field cycle is reversing polarization, as it does every 11 years. This reversal causes larger and more frequent solar flares, which explains why this year has seen a large number of these impressive solar weather occurrences in many years.  National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officials say “the sun’s normal 11-year activity cycle is ramping up toward solar maximum, which is expected in late 2013” (NASA News, 2013, found below).

Early in October the Earth was treated to a wonderful display of Northern Lights, illuminating the sky with brilliant dancing colors throughout the Northern United States and Canada. A solar flare directed at the Earth sent a larger than average stream of magnetized radiation at the Earth, which reacted with the Earth’s own gravity and magnetic field, creating Northern Lights. This particular flare was a class M, which was not strong enough to disrupt any satellites or space stations orbiting the Earth but is still considered impressive by NASA’s standards.

The question remains: how will these solar flares affect technology and are they dangerous to the Earth? Below are some informative links explaining what solar flares are, how they affect technology, and how they are studied.

What are solar flares and why are they important:

Solar Flare Theory Educational Web Pages (find it on the ipl2)

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in the Heliophysics Science Division offers a detailed look at solar flares, explaining what a solar flare is, why it’s important to study solar flares, and what impact solar flares have. Additionally, this site reviews current research projects in the field of solar flares, such as the RHESSI Spacecraft.

NASA News (find it on the ipl2)

On June 8th, 2013, NASA announced that a class M solar flare had occurred on June 7th. NASA explained effects such as moderate radio blackout are common with class M solar flares. NASA officials also stated that increased solar weather activities, like flares, were likely to occur more frequently in 2013, as the magnetic field was likely to reach “solar maximum.” The United States Space Weather Prediction Center with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association predicts that the solar flare activities are likely to increase late in 2013.

The Sun Also Flips: 11-Year Solar Cycle Wimpy, but Peaking (New!)

University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Terry Devitt provides an in depth explanation of the solar flare and of solar maxes, explaining that the Sun’s magnetic field reverses direction every 11 years, causing sunspots, solar flares, auroras, and geomagnetic storms.  Devitt also discusses the effects of superflares and their potential global threat to the Earth.

The not-so Northern Lights: Solar Flare Slams into Earth to Display Majestic Aurora as Far South as Kansas, Maine and Donegal (New!)

The Daily Mail Online explains how a powerful solar flare brought the Northern Lights as far south as Kansas, Main, and Donegal (a town in Ireland). The site explains the phenomena and includes many lovely photos from Paul Cyr illustrating an Amish family experiencing the Lights for the first time. The Daily explains what a solar flare is, why it occurs, and that in December of 2013 this solar flare cycle will reach its peak, undoubtedly creating more Northern Lights.

How do they affect technology on the Earth:

The Effects of Solar Flares on Technology (New!)

eHow explains the Effects of Solar Flares on Technology in a manner that is clear and easy to understand. eHow explains the Sun’s 11 year magnetic energy cycle and its effect on the rate of solar flare as it changes.  The site additionally outlines the effect on the power grids, GPS technology, and mobile devices.

Could an Extremely Powerful Solar Flare Destroy all the Electronics on Earth? (find it on the ipl2)

In Jonathan Strickland’s article with, he explains the nature of the sun, solar flares, and the potential for damage for our planet when a solar flare happens. Strickland explains that the majority of flares are absorbed in our atmosphere, creating Northern Lights and leaving the majority of people unharmed, but for people in space or at high altitudes skin cancer or irritation is a risk depending of the flare’s classification; additionally Strickland explains the vulnerability of satellites and electronics. The last super-storm from the Sun happened in 1859, when a flare so powerful occurred that Cubans saw the Northern Light. Strickland explains that if a similar flare happened today, it would take months to repair the damage.

Solar Flare Warning Issued by NASA (New!)

On August 21st NASA issued a Solar Flare Warning as a storm hurtled toward the Earth at 3 million mph, interrupting some satellites used for GPSs and airline communications. The article from Inquisitor explains that 3 million mph is an average speed for solar storms. Additionally the Northern Lights is an extraordinary side effect of the these storms.  When the solar radiation from the the flare hits the Earth’s magnetic field, the radiation breaks up in the atmosphere creating the Northern Lights in the sky, which are brightest at the poles of the Earth where the magnetic field is the strongest.

Solar Effects (find it on the ipl2)

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Space Weather Predictions Centers (SWPC) offers detailed descriptions of solar effects, including solar cycles, solar-terrestrial effects (the solar weather’s effects on earth), and a look at SWPC’s other solar weather operations. The table provided on this site is particularly helpful in laying out the specific effects that solar weather has on the Earth.

How do we study the sun:

Scientists have High Hopes for Japan’s Solar-B Mission Which has been Launched from the Uchinoura Space Port (find it on the ipl2)

Here the BBC’s Jonathan Amos discusses Japan’s new mission to study solar explosions. In September of 2006, Japan sent the spacecraft Solar-B into space carrying a probe, which will find out more about the Sun’s magnetic fields that cause solar flares when their 11-year cycle changes, flinging radiation into space. Amos explains that the probe will act as magnet to study the sun, giving scientists the hope that with finer detail they will be able to predict solar flares more accurate and avoid disaster in the future.

The Classification of X-ray Solar Flares or “Solar Flare Alphabet Soup” (find it on the ipl2) gives a unique look into the science of classifying solar flares. By analyzing strength of wattage, or the measurement of light admitted from the Sun, in a measurement called an Angstrom, scientists are able to determine the classifications; for example 10^-5.5 watts measures up to a class M solar event.  The site then explains how class X could lead to lasting radio blackout and radiation, class M would cause radiation in the Earth’s magnetic field and radio blackouts around the pole, and class C are unnoticed by the public.

Strongest Solar Flare in Months Unleashed by Sun (find it on the ipl2)

NBC’s Denise Chow offers a clear explanation of the class system for solar flares in a report of the event on October 9th, 2013, when at 9:48pm EDT one of the strongest solar flare in two months occurred. Chow illustrates the role of Earth’s magnetic field and how the flare could disrupt communications on Earth.

Our Sun (New!)

This children’s site illustrates the fundamentals of solar astronomy, highlighting key points like x-ray classification of solar flares, convection, thermonuclear fusion, and sun spots and winds. This site is particularly helpful because it offers HD video from NASA and the Kids Know It Network.

NASA Canyon of Fire on the Sun (find it on the ipl2)

Nasa’s YouTube Channel offers look at an eruption of solar material that occurred in late September. The video illustrates how the Sun is actually made out of plasma, and as magnetic fields change cycles, eruptions, like solar flares, can happen. This video demonstrates that by analyzing the eruption at different wavelengths, as demonstrated by the multiple colors, scientists are able to study the magnetic field around the Sun.


The Link: Weather Phenomena

In many parts of the world, particularly in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, springtime comes with the potential for severe storms, including tornadoes. Tornadoes are normally formed when cold, dry air meets warm, moist air and are typically preceded and accompanied by severe thunderstorms known as “super cells.”  Tornados can last from a minute or less to over an hour and dissipate when their cyclonic energy is exhausted.  We have compiled several sources on the meteorology of tornadoes, preparing for tornadoes, and on the history of tornado events.

In the past month, we have also experienced a different kind of storm that is much further away—the space storm.  At the end of January, there was a radiation storm in space that, save for a few disruptions of GPS systems, airline communication systems, and satellites, did not impact general phone or internet connectivity and resulted in dramatic aurora borealis displays, also known as northern lights.  We have put together a list of sources that deal with such space storms.

The science behind these kinds of weather phenomena can be difficult to understand, especially for children.  We have put together several resources that explain all sorts of weather events in a basic way that kids (and everyone!) can understand.

New resources that will be added to the ipl2 are noted NEW! All other resources are already listed in the ipl2 collection.


The Weather Channel Storm Encyclopedia (find it on the ipl2)
Definitions and explanations of the key processes of super cell and tornado formation in terms appropriate for non-specialists.

Accuweather (find it on the ipl2)
This one minute and 15 second video illustrates how tornadoes are formed and shows moving images of actual tornadoes.

NEW!  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Tornado Safety Guide
Information on the National Severe Storms Laboratory page on the NOAA website explains both how citizens should prepare for tornadoes and how they should respond to tornado watches and warnings.

NOAA Storm Events (find it on the ipl2)
Users of this site can search this database for specific weather patterns (hail, wind speed, location, etc) to discover when and where storms of a particular type have struck in the United States.

NEW!  The Tornado History Project
Users of site can search for storms in United States by dates and locations and learn about the specific injuries and deaths associated with specific storms.  The database contains details about storms from 1950 to the present (photos and videos are included for more recent events).

Space Weather

NEW!  Space Weather Center
This site provides very simple, easy to understand explanations of all aspects of space weather.  There is a “space storms” portal that includes an explanation of the impact that space weather can have on Earth, as well as links to current conditions.  There is also an education section with resources dedicated to teachers and students.

Space Weather page on Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) (find it on the ipl2)
A project developed through an “international collaboration between ESA and NASA to study the Sun from its deep core to the outer corona and the solar wind.”  The space weather page includes explanatory videos and real-time space weather activity updates.

Current Space Weather Conditions (find it on the ipl2)
“The official source of space weather alerts, warnings, and forecasts,” providing current information on geomagnetic storms, solar winds, solar flares, and aurora activity. The education/outreach page features a FAQ, a glossary of solar-terrestrial terms, a primer on space weather (in English and Spanish), short essays on related topics, and classroom materials. From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Weather for Kids

Weather Wiz Kids (find it on the ipl2)
This site was created by meteorologist Crystal Wicker to teach kids all about weather. The tornado page describes what tornadoes are, how they are formed, other weather phenomena associated with tornadoes and safety tips.

Wild Wild Weather (find it on the ipl2)
Dan Satterfield, meteorologist and Earth Science blogger for the American Geophysical Union, created this site to share his love for weather. The page about tornadoes describes why they occur, shows current warnings across the U.S. and links to instructions for making your own tornado.

NASA’s Space Place (find it on the ipl2)
Maintained by NASA, this site explains space weather in language that kids can understand. It includes lots of pictures, diagrams and videos to make the subject fun and interactive.

Ready Kids (find it on the ipl2)
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) teamed up with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to create the Ready campaign to prepare Americans for emergencies. This site for kids provides Information on tornadoes, hurricanes and other weather events. It is divided into sections titled “Know the Facts,” “Make a Plan,” “Build a Kit” and “Fun & Games.

Reminder: You can now subscribe to ipl2’s newsletter and weekly blog posts via email as well as RSS. The “Email Subscription” feature appears prominently in the upper left-hand side of the page on the ipl2′s News and Information WordPress blog. Subscription is free and open to all!