Halloween solar storm put folks on edge in 2003

The scary story I’m about to share with you has been told for 10 years now, most often on Halloween.

The image of a swirling, fiery object — a mass coronal ejection — still haunts scientists throughout the world. And those who understand the potential power of solar storms can’t help but be frightened at the vulnerability of today’s electronic world.

The story of the “Halloween Magnetic Storm” has been told in many ways, but I like the version written this year by Elizabeth Howell for Space.com:

“Ten years ago this week, scientists worldwide got the spooks when a Halloween solar storm disrupted communications, GPS and even a United States defense operation.

“While residents in Texas and Florida delighted in auroras usually not seen that far south, the storm (which was most intense between about Oct. 29 and 31, 2003) caused some spooky sun-spawned havoc both on the Earth and above it …

“On the International Space Station, astronauts sought shelter from the increased levels of radiation. Meanwhile, solar particles bombarded several satellites — killing the Japanese ADEOS-II, which was only launched the year before — while disrupting terrestrial networks below.”

Read the rest of Elizabeth’s story at Space.com, which also features the “Worst solar storms of all time: a solar countdown” along with “Solar Max: amazing sun storm photos of 2003.” The video on this page also came from Space.com.

As a 10th anniversary offering, officials with the U.S. Geological Survey put together their version of “The Magnetic Storm of Halloween 2003.”

Some great information and videos of the solar flare and its effects were presented at the time on the website of the Goddard Space Flight Center.

Here’s part of the story I put together for the Kitsap Sun on Oct. 30, 2003:

A flare for the dramatic

“As of late Wednesday, the storm had caused no major problems, but it was keeping spacecraft operators, utilities managers and others on alert.

“It damaged a Japanese satellite and produced spectacular displays of the northern lights as far south as Georgia, New Mexico and Texas.

“The solar activity has also caused a series of radio blackouts that affected communications with aircraft traveling at extreme northern and southern latitudes. The blackouts are expected to continue for at least a week…

“Dr. Dale Ireland, a Silverdale dentist and amateur astronomer, was thrilled with the aurora he observed about 3 a.m. Wednesday, and he was eagerly awaiting a similar event Wednesday night.

“”There were pulsations, like waves that went through really fast, which is caused by the solar wind,” he said of Wednesday morning’s event. “They just went back and forth. It was just amazing.”

“The colors were green with red at the top, and streamers flashed across the sky in less than a half-second.

“Ireland has observed slow-moving pulses in previous auroras, but never anything as dramatic as he saw Wednesday morning.

“After Wednesday’s solar storm arrived early, he was prepared for anything Wednesday night.

“”Auroras are like snow in Seattle,” he said. “They tell you it’s going to snow and nothing happens, then it snows when you don’t expect it.”

“Despite the drama in the sky, West Sound emergency management officials didn’t expect solar winds to have any noticeable effect on emergency communications.”

Note: Dale Ireland, who generously kept me informed about astronomical events for more than a decade, died last year.

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