Published March 08, 2012
The largest solar storm in five years -- spawned by a double whammy of flares from the sun -- has engulfed the Earth, but scientists say the planet has lucked out, largely missing the predicted dangers.
The storm arrived more peacefully Thursday morning than it could have. Scientists say that could change as the storm spends the day shaking the planet's magnetic field. Airlines and power grid operators were warned of potential issues from the storm -- and some reported taking precautionary steps just in case.
“We are flying alternate routes for seven flights,” Anthony Black, a spokesman for Delta Airlines, told FoxNews.com. Polar flights -- those with paths that cross over the North Pole -- can suffer from communications issues and pilots and passengers can be exposed to radiation.
To avoid that, Delta switched to preplanned alternate routes for several westbound flights between U.S. cities such as Atlanta, Minneapolis and New York City and Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Nagoya.
“It may be 15 to 20 minutes of additional time,” Black said.
Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center, said the agency may have overestimated the effects of the blast.
“We expected the freight train. The freight train has gone by, is still going by, and now we’re watching to see how this all shakes out,” Kunches said. The challenge: the agency can't anticipated the orientation of the magnetic field within the charged particles sent from the sun.
"We estimated the speed but we missed the spin on the ball,” he said.
Ed Martell, a spokesman for American Airlines, said the company was watching the activity closely.
"We are monitoring the solar flare activity, and while we’ve not changed any routings, we are using lower altitudes for any flights routed above 60 degrees North," he told FoxNews.com.
In a study released last week, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation -- an organization certified by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission -- noted that the most likely outcome from a severe solar storm would be the loss of reactive power. But a spokesman was quick to point out that they have so far seen no effects to the grid.
“Currently there has been no impact to the bulk power system from the recent solar flare,” Kimber Mielcarek, a representative for the NERC, told FoxNews.com. “The NERC will continue its normal pattern of 24/7 monitoring, especially in regard to the current solar storm.”
“Utilities also continue their normal monitoring pattern of transmission and distribution facilities for any abnormal energy flows and are prepared to take all appropriate actions to maintain reliability.”
These reports were confirmed by major power utilities who seemed unaffected by the sun's cosmic belch. A representative from MidAmerican Energy Company, Iowa's largest energy company that serves several major markets in the Midwest, said that it was experiencing no problems from this morning's storm.
"We experienced no impact from the solar activity that occurred this morning and last month," Tina Potthoff told FoxNews.com. "We are confident our electrical system is prepared to respond to this type of an event. We continuously review our emergency response processes to ensure effective deployment when required."
Southern Company, an Atlanta-based energy firm that serves 4.4 million customers in the Southeast, also reported no problems.
"We were notified about the solar disturbance earlier this week," a spokesman at the firm told FoxNews.com. "We don't expect the solar flare to disrupt electricity here."
In a press briefing Thursday morning, Kunches said the solar flare or coronal mass ejection (CME) had hit the planet and the agency was closely monitoring its effects.
“The CME passed the 'A' satellite a million miles upstream -- the first sentinel up there -- at about 3:45 a.m. MST this morning,” he said. That blast of charged particles had a 59 nanotesla impact -- "that's a pretty good shock," Kunches said.
The storm started with a massive solar flare earlier in the week and grew as it raced outward from the sun. The storm arrived at Earth about 6 a.m. EST (1100GMT).
The cosmic double whammy came from the sun late in the day on March 6, two major X-class flares (the strongest that the sun can have) that capped a busy Tuesday of powerful solar storms.
“Super Tuesday? You bet!” joked Kunches.
“By some measures this is the strongest one since December of 2006,” Kunches explained. “The impacts so far have been on par for an event such as this.”
The upside to a solar tsunami? Some areas may experience a wonderful display of the Northern Lights.
“It’s the treat that we get when the sun erupts,” he said.