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The sun is coming out of a long slumber, and scientists are bracing for the impacts of heightened solar activity here on Earth.
A Tuesday-night solar flare shot the biggest wave of radiation and electrical and magnetic emissions in five years straight toward the Earth, meaning that by early Thursday morning electrical grids, GPS navigation and radio-wave transmissions could be affected.
The emissions are expected to come roaring into the atmosphere between 1 and 5 million miles per hour just after midnight on Thursday morning, according to Bob Rutledge, lead of the forecast office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Weather Prediction Center.
The sun has been in a quiet phase for the last several years, but it's coming out of it. And Coronal Mass Ejections, which spew a billion tons of plasma from the sun's surface, will become more frequent, Rutledge said.
"The sun has solar flares often, but these are shooting toward Earth," said Patrick Wiggins, NASA solar system ambassador to Utah. "When that stuff gets here, it interacts with the upper atmosphere."
That's when people in places like the northern parts of the United States and Canada get to see auroras, but the other effects might not be so positive.
Rutledge says car navigation systems shouldn't be too affected, but mining and drilling companies that need accuracy to the centimeter will not be able to get that kind of precision.
Airplanes completing long-haul flights often travel near the poles to save fuel and cut down on flight times, but the geomagnetic storms are affecting the high-frequency radio communications needed to communicate over the horizon, Rutledge said. Several airlines have been warned they may need to reroute flights to travel at a lower latitude.
Delta Air Lines has not yet had to alter any flight paths, but they are continuing to monitor the situation, said spokesman Anthony Black.
Geomagnetic storms caused by large solar ejections can also cause damage to electrical transformers or trip safety switches, shutting down power. However, this storm shouldn't be that intense, Rutledge said.
Utah's lower latitude has protected it from issues associated with the electromagnetic interference of such flares, said David Eskelsen, spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power. His engineers, though, do keep track of space weather forecasts.
The next 10 days could bring more flares and more disruptions, Rutledge said.
"The one thing to keep in mind is that the active region is still there and it still has some potential," he said.
The sun's activity, especially sunspots, is easily visible through with the naked eye protected with a special filter for safety, Wiggins said. To see real-time images of the sun, visit http://sohowww.estec.esa.nl/data/realtime-images.html