Holes in the sun threatening to throw birds and GPS off course

A Nasa handout in 2013 shows an extensive coronal hole that rotated into view. — AFP/HO/NASA pic
A Nasa handout in 2013 shows an extensive coronal hole that rotated into view. — AFP/HO/NASA pic

BOSTON, April 1 — Birds flying north for the spring and people relying on global positioning satellites to navigate could get a little lost this weekend.

Three coronal holes spread across the sun are pointing at Earth. As a result, the US Space Weather Prediction Centre in Boulder, Colorado, and the Space Weather Operations Centre of the UK Met Office in Exeter have issued an alert for tomorrow of a minor geomagnetic storm.

“Early on Day 3 (April 2), a high-speed stream from coronal hole 67 is expected to reach Earth,” said the Met Office.

Forecasters in the US and UK predict this could confuse migrating birds and other animals, cause minor problems with satellites and make an aurora visible as far south as Maine and Michigan.

The storms could rise to G2 level on a five-step scale, which would mean the Northern Lights might be seen in New York, and some electrical transformers could be damaged.

Magnetic lines

Viewed through X-ray telescopes, coronal holes can appear to be vast, dark, blank spaces in the swirling atmosphere of the sun. They are the places where the sun’s magnetic lines don’t return to the surface.

How does that work?

Touch your fingertips together and they form an arc — this is what the magnetic lines do on the sun. Now spread your fingers outward so they aren’t touching and are pointing away from you. This is what happens with the magnetic lines on the sun when a coronal hole opens.

The solar wind, a stream of charged particles flowing away from the sun, bursts out with greater velocity from the coronal holes. When the holes point at Earth, the planet is caught in even stronger winds and the chances of geomagnetic storms increase.

So, if you run into a lost bird tomorrow, help the little fellow on his way. That is, if you know where you are yourself. — Bloomberg

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