The Sun Is Coming!

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Earth got off relatively easy last week after being hit by the biggest blast of solar radiation since 2005—but we may not be so lucky next time. Last week’s coronal mass ejection, in which a solar flare whipped an arc of magnetic particles toward Earth at 4 million mph, led some airlines to reroute flights away from the poles, where their effect was most intense, lighting up atmospheric gases into unusually extensive auroral light displays. But because the Earth wasn’t directly in the path of the X-rays and charged particles, damage was
minimal. “We pretty much dodged a bullet,” NASA’s Antti Pulkkinen tells

Trouble, however, may lie ahead. Scientists say last week’s storm was just an opening volley in a period of unusually intense solar activity that could cause trouble for communication satellites, data transmission, and long-distance power lines.The storm signaled the end of “the quietest solar period in more than 100 years,” says Boston University space-weather expert Jeffrey Hughes.

The sun’s shifting magnetic fields are known to amp up their activity on an 11-year cycle, and this one is expected to peak next year. Pulkkinen says that means that more-frequent and more-intense solar storms “will no doubt be directed toward Earth.”