WASHINGTON — The largest solar storm in five years is racing toward Earth, threatening to unleash a torrent of charged particles that could disrupt power grids, GPS and airplane flights.
The sun erupted Tuesday evening, and the effects should start smacking Earth between 1 and 5 a.m. today, according to forecasters at the government's Space Weather Prediction Center. They say the storm, which started with a massive solar flare, is growing as it speeds outward from the sun.
"It's hitting us right in the nose," said Joe Kunches, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He called it the sun's version of "Super Tuesday."
The solar storm is likely to last through Friday morning, but the region that erupted can still send more blasts our way, Kunches said. He said another set of active sunspots is ready to aim at Earth right after this.
But for now, scientists are waiting to see what happens today when the charged particles hit Earth at 4 million mph.
For North America the "good" part of a solar storm — the one that creates more noticeable auroras or Northern Lights — will peak this evening. Auroras could dip as far south as the Great Lakes states or lower, Kunches said, but a full moon will make them harder to see.
But there is potential for widespread problems. Solar storms have three ways they can disrupt technology on Earth: with magnetic, radio and radiation emissions. This is an unusual situation when all three types of solar storm disruptions are likely to be strong, Kunches said.
The magnetic part of the storm has the potential to trip electrical power grids. Kunches said utility companies around the world have been alerted. The timing and speed of the storm determines whether it knocks off power grids, he said.