Tag Archives: spaceweather.com

Understanding Solar Flare Terminology

Back in the 1990’s my father and I were getting into amateur astronomy.  We had a pretty cool telescope (Meade LX200) and would spend evenings finding all sorts of galaxies and nebulae.  It was a ton of fun, and we were nerds about it too, forcing everyone in the house to keep the lights off so our night-vision wasn’t ruined.  Also, if we needed to run inside the house to get something, we’d wear two pairs of sunglasses.

Since that time I’ve been on the email list Spaceweather.com (sign up here) where you are kept abreast of the current happenings in outer space, such as comets, near earth asteroids, meteor showers, and solar flares. Another great email alert system comes from the Australian government (sign up here).

This is a timely article because we are entering another peak in solar activity, which follows a very predictable 11 year cycle.  More frequent alerts are coming and they are sometimes difficult to understand, so I wanted to share some information and resources.

The flares are measured as soon as they occur and are given a strength-based label , C, M or X.  Class C and Class M flares are frequent and don’t really cause much noticeable interference, unless you are a ham radio operator working on the very high frequencies.  X Class flares are much more rare and depending on their size and direction, they could cause a lot of damage.

What does this have to do with homesteading?  Well, let me just tell you by sharing an example of the extreme so that you can make sure you understand this terminology and be prepared.  The largest solar event in recent history was in 1859 and has been termed the Carrington Event.  See this wikipedia article for the full scoop, but for now just know that it was a solar flare that caused telegraph lines to become charged to the point where operators were shocked and some stations even burned down.  The interconnected telegraph lines acted like a giant antenna and focused this inbound energy from the sun.  In our hyper-technological age, the effects of a storm of that magnitude would be devastating to our vastly larger and increasingly interconnected power grid.  The result could be short or long term power outages, depending on the level of severity.

Here are just a handful of recent examples:

2003 – The Halloween Storms – a series of flares send CME’s towards our planet creating heavy disturbances in high frequency radio transmissions.  Also, the Wide Area Augmentation System used by the FAA to provide navigation information to aircraft was put out of commission.  Flares measuring X10, X17 and X28 were recorded.  The X28 was not earth directed, though.  The damage was caused by the X10 and X17.

2000 – The Bastille Day event – X5 class flare launched a CME towards Earth causing a large geomagnetic storm.  No damage reported.

1989 – On March 6 an X15 class flare occurred, resulting in a CME that hit our planet on March 9.  This was strong enough and direct enough that the power grid in Quebec collapsed for 9 hours.

I use the above as a reference when reading the alert emails I receive.  Knowing that we only need be concerned about X class eruptions rules out most of the notifications.

What can we do about it?  Be informed –  Subscribe to the above alert systems.  When a large flare produces an earthbound CME, unplug sensitive electronics.  Reduce grid dependency – heat your home and cook with a wood stove, that kind of stuff.  You never know what may happen in the future, and knowing how to perform basic homesteading tasks could serve you well.  This answers one of the ‘why’ questions on why we try to learn the old ways of doing things.  Its not only fun, but does serve as a backup plan for the unknown, no matter how small the risk.

Thanks, Robert.