- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

DENVER (AP) — An unusually powerful geomagnetic storm hit Earth early yesterday, threatening power outages, disrupting airlines communications and damaging some satellites.

Scientists at a federal laboratory in Boulder, Colo., said the first pulse of highly charged particles from the sun collided with Earth’s magnetic field at 1 a.m. EST, about 12 hours earlier than predicted.

The storm is rated a G5, the highest intensity on scientists’ scale of space weather. It was unleashed by a solar flare.

The last time a G5 storm hit Earth was in 1989, researchers said, which damaged the electric grid and caused blackouts in Canada’s Quebec province.

“It is extremely rare to get this level of geomagnetic storming,” said Larry Combs, forecaster for the Space Weather Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder. “This is one of the strongest storms that we have received during this cycle.”

There were few immediate reports of damage related to the geomagnetic storm.

However, Mr. Combs said, “We know that our power grids are definitely feeling the effects of this.”

Those charged with monitoring electrical grids are watching “very closely for their triggering devices,” he said.

He also noted that there had been radio-communications disruptions in recent days for airlines, especially those on North Atlantic and polar routes.

Another strong storm, although weaker than yesterday’s, occurred last week.

The sun generates particle storms in 11-year cycles, and storms of this magnitude are rarely seen, scientists said. The current solar cycle peaked nearly three years ago, and such a powerful event occurring on the cycle’s downside is surprising.

In Tokyo, Japan’s space agency announced the Kodama communications satellite malfunctioned after being affected by the flare. The agency said it was temporarily shut down and would be reactivated after the storm subsided, but there was no major communication disruption.

The G5 storm was spawned early Tuesday by a spectacular eruption from a sunspot blemish on the surface of the sun that sent charged particles hurling toward Earth. The cloud is 13 times larger than Earth and travels at more than 1 million mph.

The explosion of gas and charged particles into space from the corona, the outermost layer of the sun’s atmosphere, was the largest observed in 30 years, scientists reported. It isn’t harmful to people.

A positive note: Strong geomagnetic storms can produce colorful auroras in the night sky visible as far south as Texas and Florida.

Scientists compared the latest flare to the Bastille Day storm of July 14, 2000.

“The Bastille Day storm produced considerable disruption to both ground and space high-tech systems,” said Bill Murtagh, a space-weather forecaster for NOAA.

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