Northern Darkness

StarDate: March 13, 2009

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Canadians are used to the long, dark nights of winter. But 20 years ago today, the season got a little darker and colder for residents of Quebec: The Sun turned out the lights.

A powerful magnetic storm on the surface of the Sun spewed charged particles into space. Hours later, Earth's magnetic field nabbed some of the particles and funneled them toward the north magnetic pole. When this surge of energy reached the surface, it overloaded power grids in Quebec -- and much of the province went dark.

The storm occurred at the peak of the Sun's 11-year cycle of sunspots, when such outbursts are most common.

Right now, the Sun is in the quiet part of this cycle. And last year was one of the quietest on record. But the cycle is due to get more active pretty soon, and reach its peak in about three years -- which could bring more trouble than ever for our high-tech society.

Solar storms can interrupt long-distance radio transmissions, and damage or destroy orbiting satellites. Since we're more dependent on satellites than ever before, the increase in storms could cause big problems. The storms also cause airlines to divert flights that normally fly close to the north pole because a lot of solar radiation bombards the upper atmosphere.

Scientists predict that the next cycle will peak somewhere from 2011 to 2013. So if you live in Quebec or other far-northern locations, you might want to keep a few extra candles handy -- just in case.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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