Green Guru: What Are Solar Flares and Do They Affect Birds?

CREDIT: NASA/SDO and the AIA Consortium

A storm is raging on the sun’s surface. Last Sunday it erupted in the largest solar flare in seven years. Now particles that could have an impact on communication and homing pigeons are bombarding Earth.

A solar eruption is followed by a one-two-three punch, Antti Pulkkinen, a physicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and Catholic University, told the Associated Press.

The sudden, rapid, and intense variation in brightness on the sun and resulting eruption of magnetic energy hits Earth first in the form of electromagnetic radiation, and then in radiation in the form of protons.

The radiation can disrupt satellites, affect astronauts in space, and create communication issues for planes traversing the poles. (Flights are being rerouted.)

Finally a coronal mass ejection, which is plasma directly from the sun, will hit Earth’s magnetic field. Plasma can cause electrical grid outages, but this storm is thought to be moderate. It can also make the northern lights visible in more southern locales. 

“The impact causes the field to shake and quiver,” writes NASA. “These magnetic vibrations induce currents almost everywhere, from Earth's upper atmosphere to the ground beneath our feet.”

Scientists have found that homing pigeons may use Earth’s magnetic field to navigate, like turtles. “When there is especially strong activity on the Sun, such as a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), unusually strong surges of solar wind (charged particles from the Sun) can create a geomagnetic storm which distorts the Earth's normal magnetic field. The pigeons can no longer rely on their normal guidance system and may become lost,” writes the Stanford Solar Center. Migratory birds also use magnetic clues to find their way.

Researchers are still grappling with how birds’ and other animals’ magnetic sense is perceived and how disruptions in the magnetic field may affect them. “This is basically the sixth sense of biology, but no one knows how it works,” Henrik Mouritsen a researcher at the University of Oldenburg in Germany, told Wired in 2009. “The magnetic sense is by far the least-understood sense in the natural world.”

As for this solar storm and its effects, NASA’s Pulkkinen said this: "We haven't had anything like this for a number of years. It's kind of special."

For more on the northern lights, check out what causes them in this Green Guru from our March-April 2010 issue.

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