Solar storm barely noticeable in Greater Victoria

Northern Lights might be visible here sometime over this solar cycle, Saanich-based NRC scientist says

Few could overlook the snow and wind that recently battered Greater Victoria, but unless you were aboard a cross-continental flight, the effects of much greater storm this week likely went unnoticed.

Since Jan. 19,  the Earth has been buffeted by a an extraterrestrial storm. Solar flares – followed one-to-two days later by proton-rich particle clouds – were strong enough to theoretically affect satellites and electronics once they collided with the planet’s magnetic field. Fortunately, the planet was not in the storm’s direct pathway. The most noticeable effect for earthlings was that airlines scheduled to fly across the Arctic took more southerly routes as a precaution.

“It’s a bunch of electrically active particles that come here from the sun and when they interact with anything electronic here on Earth – GPS satellites or even power-generating facilities – anything that uses electricity can be affected,” said Dmitry Monin, astronomer for the National Research Council of Canada, on West Saanich Road.

A solar storm in 1989 caused a massive power grid failure in Quebec – something that wasn’t expected during this latest event. The storm’s only flare was relatively average sized and came more or less in the direction of Earth on Sunday, Monin said.

Solar storms have been known to create visible aurora borealis outside of the usual northern regions. The natural phenomenon has been observed as far south as Mexico. Sky watchers in some northern latitudes were treated to a spectacular light show as a result of Sunday’s flare, but people in Greater Victoria didn’t have much to see.

“This time it was a pretty big flare, but not big enough,” he said.

The storm is a sign the sun is becoming more active as it nears the end of an 11-year cycle, which is likely to culminate in more flares – and more chances to see the Northern Lights in Greater Victoria – within the next three years.

“It’s like a humongous reactor generating a lot of energy, different types of radiation,” Monin said. “It’s pretty normal. The sun’s been doing it for a few billion years. …We see more of it – not because we’re approaching the end of the Mayan calendar, but just because of the next activity cycle.”

nnorth@saanichnews.com