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Island escapes solar flare disruption for now

That powerful eruption on the sun that NASA warned could cause widespread damage to power grids, GPS systems and even aeroplane flights, ended up being not much to write home about. But scientists say more solar storms are sure to come.

The solar flare, the largest in five years, unleashed a torrent of highly-charged particles racing toward Earth hitting our planet at 6.42am Bermuda time yesterday. So far, there have been no reports of major power or communications disruptions, but some scientists aren’t entirely sure we’re in the clear just yet.

“Forecasters can predict the speed a solar storm travels and its strength, but the north-south orientation is the wild card,” said Joe Kunches, a scientist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center.

Mr Kunches said Earth got dealt a good card with a northern orientation, which he calls “pretty benign”.

“We’re not out of the woods,” Mr Kunches said. “It could flip-flop and we could end up with the strength of the storm still to come.”

We wanted to know if any companies on the Island had experienced any issues caused by the solar flare. We contacted everyone from Digicel and CellOne to officials at LF Wade International Airport and CableVision.

So far, there are no reports of problems locally, but CableVision, Bermuda’s largest cable television provider, told us they see solar outages several times a year. The outages can last from five to 20 minutes depending on the strength of the solar flare or location of the satellite. The company is warning its customers that outages on some channels could be possible over the next few weeks.

Delta and United Airlines shifted 11 of their flights from the US to Asia flying further south today to avoid potential radio disruptions. The changes added 10 to 15 minutes to the affected flights, the airlines said. American Airlines said it moved three of its flights to lower altitudes on some routes closer to the polar regions.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. The largest solar flare on record was in 1859. At the time, the massive magnetic disturbance drove electricity through telegraph wires, destroying them and even knocking telegraph operators unconscious.

This also isn’t the last time we’ll hear about solar flares speeding toward Earth. The sun is currently in a very active phase, and it won’t peak until 2013, according to NASA.

One upside to these solar flares: the potential for spectacular displays of the Northern Lights. From Alaska and Canada to the northern Plains and parts of the Midwest US, the display could be more intense than usual. The solar flare could even paint colourful auroras across the night skies above New York and Chicago.

Solar storms: Could they spell trouble for your phone, computer or cable TV service?

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Published March 09, 2012 at 1:00 am (Updated March 09, 2012 at 7:46 am)

Island escapes solar flare disruption for now

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