Monday, January 14, 2008

NOAA: Sunspot is Harbinger of New Solar Cycle, Increasing Risk for Electrical Systems

A new 11-year cycle of heightened solar activity, bringing with it increased risks for power grids, critical military, civilian and airline communications, GPS signals and even cell phones and ATM transactions, showed signs it was on its way late yesterday when the cycle’s first sunspot appeared in the sun’s Northern Hemisphere, NOAA scientists said.

“This sunspot is like the first robin of spring,” said solar physicist Douglas Biesecker of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. “In this case, it’s an early omen of solar storms that will gradually increase over the next few years.”

A sunspot is an area of highly organized magnetic activity on the surface of the sun. The new 11-year cycle, called Solar Cycle 24, is expected to build gradually, with the number of sunspots and solar storms reaching a maximum by 2011 or 2012, though devastating storms can occur at any time.

During a solar storm, highly charged material ejected from the sun may head toward Earth, where it can bring down power grids, disrupt critical communications, and threaten astronauts with harmful radiation. Storms can also knock out commercial communications satellites and swamp Global Positioning System signals. Routine activities such as talking on a cell phone or getting money from an ATM machine could suddenly halt over a large part of the globe.

“Our growing dependence on highly sophisticated, space-based technologies means we are far more vulnerable to space weather today than in the past,” said Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “NOAA’s space weather monitoring and forecasts are critical for the nation’s ability to function smoothly during solar disturbances.”

Last April, in coordination with an international panel of solar experts, NOAA issued a forecast that Solar Cycle 24 would start in March 2008, plus or minus six months. The panel was evenly split between those predicting a strong or weak cycle. Both camps agree that the sooner the new cycle takes over the waning previous cycle, the more likely that it will be a strong season with many sunspots and major storms, said Biesecker. Many more sunspots with Solar Cycle 24 traits must emerge before scientists consider the new cycle dominant, with the potential for more frequent storms.

The new sunspot, identified as #10,981, is the latest visible spot to appear since NOAA began numbering them on January 5, 1972. Its high-latitude location at 27 degrees North, and its negative polarity leading to the right in the Northern Hemisphere are clear-cut signs of a new solar cycle, according to NOAA experts. The first active regions and sunspots of a new solar cycle can emerge at high latitudes while those from the previous cycle continue to form closer to the equator.

SWPC is the nation’s first alert for solar activity and its effects on Earth. The center’s space weather forecasters issue outlooks for the next 11-year solar “season” and warn of individual storms occurring on the sun that could impact Earth. SWPC is one of NOAA’s nine National Centers for Environmental Prediction and is also the warning agency of the International Space Environment Service (ISES), a consortium of 11 member nations.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 70 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.

Mississippi Twister News!

Picking Up the Pieces After Tornado Damage

In the aftermath of Thursday's tornadoes, many Mississippians are now in recovery mode. The storms left injuries and widespread destruction in several areas of the state. Four counties are a under a governor-issued state of emergency.

Those counties are Attala, Choctaw, Holmes and Lowndes county. Governor Haley Barbour says declaring a state of emergency will help the counties get the assistance they require. Thursday's destructive storms are also blamed for a least two fatal traffic accidents in Mississippi.

In Lowndes County alone, at least 25 homes were destroyed, 22 suffered major damage and 59 had minor damage, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. MEMA also says one Lowndes County business was destroyed, two had major damage and two had minor damage. Also, 11 people were injured - three serious enough to go to the hospital but none with life-threatening injuries.

In the Caledonia community in Lowndes county, a school is one place that suffered very noticeable damage. The strong winds picked up school buses -- tossing one onto a roof. At least two students suffered injuries. Friday, Skycopter 3 flew over Caledonia, and clearly the twisters left a path of flattened buildings and snapped trees. At least two tornadoes touched down in the Caledonia community as they roared through.

The Red Cross has moved into Holmes County to assist those made homeless by the tornado. One of the most serious injuries in that area was to a 52 year old woman who lived alone in a trailer that was destroyed, just south of Goodman. Deb Smith is in fair condition at University Medical Center in Jackson.

The steel frame of the trailer where she lived is twisted around a huge tree like a pretzel. Miraculously, fire personnel from Goodman were able to pull her out of the wreckage and get her to a hospital in Holmes County. She was later airlifted to U.M.C.

In Choctaw County, storms not only left two people injured and some homes damaged -- but also left 10 cows dead and about 70 cows injured. The storms also created power outages in various areas of the state.

International News from IAEM

AUSTRALIA: Severe storm leaves scores of homes damaged
Emergency crews are working to fix homes and restore power to properties affected by a severe storm that hit parts of western Sydney yesterday afternoon. The State Emergency Service (SES) says it received more than 200 calls for help in the Penrith and Blacktown areas, many from people whose homes had been damaged by heavy rain and strong winds.