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KPCC vs. The Sun: Solar flares, cosmic rays, and a chat with the director of the Griffith Observatory

Mar. 7, 2012 - Finland, Aurora Borealis
Mar. 7, 2012 - Finland, Aurora Borealis
Photo by Objetpetitm via Flickr Creative Commons

An angry sun is a vengeful sun, and based on the attention given to the solar flare that stormed Earth today, we wondered if somehow we'd upset the giant Lite-Brite in the sky.

Of course not, says longtime director of the Griffith Observatory, Dr. Edwin Krupp. This has been going on for a while, he said, noting that the sun has been around about four and half billion years. Solar activity, he explained, runs in 11 year cycles (solar activity is expected to peak in the current cycle around 2013), and people have been counting the spots on the sun for thousands of years.

The solar telescope at Griffith Observatory has been tracking the activity, Dr. Krupp told KPCC, but as far as viewing goes, this particular group has slipped to the side because of the rotation of the sun.

We asked Dr. Krupp if the museum's cloud and spark chambers — two on-site instruments measuring the bombardment of Earth by cosmic rays — would be seeing an increase in activity following an event like this.

"Very unlikely," said Krupp, noting that we might be picking up secondary cosmic rays but that it's impossible to really know if activity is directly related because of the amount of interference the rays encounter by the time they get to the surface of the earth.

What really occurs during these events, he explained, is a distortion of the planet's electromagnetic field, and when that happens, there is a potential to induce current into communication equipment and causing a short circuit.

This solar flare episode was milder on impact then projected, NASA solar astrophysicist Alex Young told KPCC'S Patt Morrison. The "low level" storm still created aurora spectacles as far south as the Great Lakes region, however, noted the L.A. Times.

No geomagnetic-related outages or interferences were reported in the nation's major power grids.


This story has been updated from an eariler version.