Our sun...modern day friend and foe
On the friendly side, the middle aged, medium sized star of approximately 4.5 billion years warms and lights our planet.
Dr. Cran Lucas of the Shreveport Astronomical Society can rattle off numerous benefits of having our sun around: "We depend on it for light, for energy, photosynthesis to make plants grow…We need it to support life on this planet. It drives our weather patterns…sometimes good for us or bad for us like a hurricane or something like that…But, the sun…it’s what makes the earth go in so many ways."
On the other side of the fence though, the sun makes it difficult at times to operate our modern technology like cell phones, GPS, radio, TV and electrical power for our homes and businesses.
Why is this? Well, first you have to understand a little bit about...sunspots or what scientist call huge magnetic storms on the sun's surface. They are usually black in color signifying slightly cooler areas as compared to the blistering normal solar surface temperature of 10,000 degrees F!
Sunspots come in cycles. Dr. Cran Lucas states that the sun has an 11 year cycle of sunspot activity. So, every 11 years we reach a peak of sunspot activity…what they call Solar Max.
In other words, during solar max, you get a whole lot of sun spots peppering the solar surface. And with more spots there's usually more explosions on the sun called Coronal Mass Ejections or CMEs.
Dr. Lucas puts it this way: "You can have literally explosions on the sun that produce coronal mass ejections and this is where you have billions and billions of tons of hydrogen gas exploding off the sun".
These CMEs travel out in space in all directions at about a million miles per hour! If one is aimed at earth, it can make the 93 million mile journey in just a few days!
Upon arrival in our atmosphere, a few things can happen.
Dr. Lucas states: "Of course, it it hits earth, it causes increased activity in the aurora which is pretty to look at."
What Dr. Lucas is describing can be termed in our hemisphere as the Northern Lights. They are usually visible in Canada and Alaska. But, if the CME is strong, the lights may flicker as far south as the Ozarks!
Unfortunately, when the northern lights are on, our modern electronic gadgets are in danger. Cell phone service can be disrupted; GPS can get you lost; radio static may increase; TV reception could suffer; etc. etc.
The satellites responsible for many of the mentioned modern comforts can be damaged too according to Dr. Lucas. Vital electronics on the spacecraft may burn up. The satellites may even fall out of orbit.
CMEs can even cause power surges in electrical grids. In March of 1989, the Hydro Quebec Power Grid was burned out from a huge coronal blast! Millions lost power for over 9 hours! In fact, the only lights on at the time were the northern ones.
The latest solar activity outlook calls for a maximum later this year according to Dr. Lucas. He expects this one to be a bit more tame than the last few.
Copyright 2013 KTBS. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.
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