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Scientists discover that magnetic ropes cause solar storms

If we can understand what causes solar storms, we can better prepare our communications networks for them.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor on

What causes solar storms?

It was always: What came first, the chicken or the egg sort of debate. Until now, scientists weren't sure what exactly powered the eruptions. Scientists have discovered that magnetic ropes cause solar storms. Using images from the NASA Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) spacecraft, George Mason scientists confirmed that magnetic ropes do indeed precede solar storms. The area highlighted in the box above shows where the magnetic rope is forming, putting an end the debate over the cause of solar storms.

When a solar storm occurs, plasma is hurled from the surface of the Sun all the way to Earth at more than one million miles per hour. The cloud of plasma brings a strong magnetic field that can disrupt satellite communication and wreak havoc on the grid.

"Understanding the eruption process of these storms will definitely help us better predict them," George Mason University professor Jie Zhang said in a statement. "We cannot prevent solar storms, just like we cannot prevent earthquakes or volcanoes. But the development of prediction capacity can help mitigate adverse effects. For instance, satellite operators can power-down key systems to prevent the possible damage to the systems."

The magnetic ropes are 3-dimensional structures that form on a part of the Sun called the heliosphere, where magnetic fields and electronic currents twist. When the end of the rope breaks loose, a solar flare is ejected and heads towards Earth.

Solar storms can destroy orbiting spacecrafts, make radio communication difficult for airlines and disturb satellite communications. However, Zhang's discovery could help minimize damage from space weather.

"It's like a hurricane. When it hits, it can permanently damage high power transmission lines," Antti Pulkkinen, the director of NASA's newSolar Shield project, told me previously. "The power grid is more sensitive than ever before."

Since the dawn of the Space Age, the number of wires linking the nation's high-voltage power lines continues to increase. GPS is ubiquitous. When the last solar storm hit, we weren’t as wired and hooked to the grid. Yet, our ability to predict space weather is as sophisticated as weather forecasts were in the 1960s - not very sophisticated at all.

Yet, it is more crucial than ever to predict the severity of the storm, given that the impact of a big geomagnetic storm has been estimated to be in the ballpark of $2 trillion. Fortunately, with the help of real-time data from NASA satellites, scientists are getting better at predicting solar storms.

via George Mason University

Photo by NASA/George Mason University

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