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Natural Perspectives: Preparing for 'coronal mass ejection'

March 14, 2012|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
  • A minimum amount of water to store is three gallons per person. Each of these BPA-free Reliance water containers holds 3 gallons, enough water for one person for three days. The cardboard tag provides a place to write the date so we know when to replace the water.
A minimum amount of water to store is three gallons per… (Courtesy Lou Murray,…)

To play on a phrase from "Star Trek": "Space. The final weather frontier."

I just learned that space weather is something that exists. I asked Vic if he had ever heard of space weather, and he said no.

We knew about solar wind, which is a steady stream of subatomic particles coming out from the sun. Solar wind can affect Earth's magnetic field. But we did not know that there is a field of science dedicated to studying and forecasting that wind, or space weather, as it affects Earth.

I learned about space weather in a roundabout fashion. I have become a follower of the National Geographic television series "Doomsday Preppers." The series profiles people who are preparing for Armageddon and the end of the world caused by one thing or another. Some of them say they are preparing for a C.M.E. that will knock out our power grid.

At first I thought, "Oh, no, something else to worry about."

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My next thought was, "What the heck is a C.M.E.?"

I'm a biologist, not an astrophysicist. I had to look it up. Seems it stands for "coronal mass ejection." I had to look that up too. A coronal mass ejection is what happens when there is a large solar flare.

Our sun is basically a huge ball of super hot hydrogen. It's so hot that the hydrogen has gone beyond the gas stage to the plasma stage. I'm sure the astrophysicists are cringing, but as far as I can make out, plasma is like melted gas.

Matter is now recognized as having four stages: solid, liquid, gas and plasma. In the form of plasma, the protons, electrons and neutrons of the atoms have all separated, and those subatomic particles are just floating around separately.

So get this. The sun is so hot that the hydrogen isn't in the form of gas anymore; it's plasma. A solar flare, or C.M.E., sends bursts of plasma, or subatomic particles, hurtling toward Earth.

It seems that there are magnetic swirls of these subatomic particles all around the sun's surface. In photographs, they look to me like loops of yarn. Sometimes these loops knock into each other, expand outward from the surface of the sun (called the corona), and break open. Whoopee, a coronal mass ejection of plasma occurs.

This creates a solar wind that hurtles toward earth at breathtaking speeds of up to two million miles an hour. A solar flare bursts outward with a force equivalent to nearly one billion hydrogen bombs. Space weather forecasters track these solar flares and forecast C.M.E. events that will affect people.

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