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Will Strong Solar Flares Disrupt Cell Service?

By Katy Galimberti, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
June 13, 2014; 12:26 AM

The sun produced two powerful solar flares on Tuesday at approximately 7:42 a.m. EDT and a third, less powerful flare occurred early on Wednesday morning. These events can have disrupting effects on Earth in radio, cell phones and other communicative tools.

The Tuesday X-class flares occurred within an hour of each other, a rare occurrence according to AccuWeather.com Astronomy Expert Hunter Outten. The two flares were not directed towards the Earth.

Still, the Earth likely felt effects in under a minute. Communication issues typically occur in the immediate aftermath of solar flares.

"Analysis is underway to determine potential impacts at Earth," NASA said in a statement.

On Wednesday morning around 5:15 a.m. EDT, the sun produced a third solar flare, though less powerful than the previous two. It is likely to be categorized as an X-class flare, though at the low threshold of the category. X-class flares are considered to be the most powerful. The flare was not directed at the Earth.

There is the chance that additional flares could occur in the following days. As the sun rotates, the flares could travel in a more direct path towards the Earth. The radiation from such a flare may cause radio wave disturbances to electronics, such as cell phones, GPS and radios, causing services to occasionally cut in and out.

A solar flare bursts off the left limb of the sun in this image captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on June 10, 2014, at 7:41 a.m. EDT. This is classified as an X2.2 flare, shown in a blend of two wavelengths of light: 171 and 131 angstroms, colorized in gold and red, respectively. (NASA/SDO/Goddard/Wiessinger)

Solar flares happen because of an internal process within the sun. Mark Paquette, AccuWeather.com meteorologist, explained the event as a "burp" from the sun.

"The 'burp' releases a stream of particles that comes away from the sun's surface and sets the whole thing in motion," he said.

There is evidence of the flares producing two coronal mass ejections (CME), which Paquette described as a "burst of energy that goes away from the sun and heads through space."

A weak CME was detected with Wednesday's flare according to Outten.

While some solar flares can produce northern lights, this pair is not expected to according to Outten. However, if there is another strong flare, the chance for northern lights will increase.

Had the flares developed a few days later, the consequences could have been more severe, though still not near the catastrophic events of previous solar storms such as the Carrington storm of 1859 and the March of 1989 Quebec storm.

The Carrington event produced intense northern lights and caused the telegraph systems in Europe and North America to fail.

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While there are now measures to protect essential infrastructures from such events, there is no proven way to shield satellites effectively, according to Paquette.

This set of flares is among the top five most powerful of the current solar cycle, according to Outten. A solar cycle lasts 11 years and is currently at its peak.

Outten said the sun has been increasingly active after being slow for the last few weeks.

"The activity of sun spots is increasing," he said. "There is a potential for more strong solar flares."

Keep checking back on the latest with AccuWeather.com.

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