The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

Solar flare blackout: explosions on the Sun’s surface knock out University of Saskatchewan radar network

By in News
Kathryn McWilliams

A blast of energetic particles from the sun collided with Earth early Thursday, causing disruptions in all four of the University of Saskatchewan’s SuperDARN radars.

SuperDARN, or Super Dual Auroral Radar Network, is an international system of over 20 radars operating together and looking into the polar regions of the Earth. The U of S controls four SuperDARN radars: one in Saskatoon, one in Prince George and two situated in the arctic.

“All of our radars in the last day or two have been receiving no data, they’ve been blacked out,” said Kathryn McWilliams, a physics professor who specializes in analyzing the radar network.

The blackouts were due to the largest solar storm to hit Earth since 2006, McWilliams said. Earlier in the week, an explosion on the Sun’s surface sent massive clouds of particles — resembling bubbles — racing outward into space.

“We just happened to be in the path of this thing,” McWilliams said.

As the storm reached Earth, the particles interacted with the upper atmosphere and the magnetic field, which lead to reports of aurora activity darting from the North Pole to Canada and dipping into the northern United States. But McWilliams said the magnetic activity can also result in damaged power grids and cause GPS systems to misalign.

Massive solar flares are sometimes associated with Coronal Mass Ejections which can trigger geomagnetic storms that have been known to knock out electric power for extended periods of time. Source: Wikipedia

“I believe GPS was probably quite strongly affected in the last day or two,” McWilliams said. “Because the communications between [satellites] and the ground have to go through the atmosphere, so when the storm is enhanced, radio waves tend to bend a bit more so your position is off.”

Massive X6.9 class solar flare, August 9, 2011.

Explosions on the sun, or solar flares, gradually increase in 11-year cycles. At peak level, Earth will absorb two or three solar storms per year. The last peak period was in 2001 or 2002, McWilliams said.

“We should be getting more of these things happening as it has been unusually quiet even though we are getting close to the maximum activity period.”

McWilliams says the SuperDARN radar system allows scientists to capture large-scale voltage readings from miles above the surface to examine what happens when solar wind reaches Earth’s atmosphere.

“We’re trying to understand the physics of the coupling between the solar wind, the Earth’s magnetic fields and the upper atmosphere,” said McWilliams. “Unfortunately, this time, because of the operational problems, we couldn’t see anything.”


Photo: Daryl Hofmann/The Sheaf &
Wikimedia Commons

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