Coming solar storm not likely to affect power grid

A solar storm that began with a massive flare on the sun's surface Thursday is due to slam into Earth's magnetic field Saturday morning, but scientists say it won't affect power grids or air traffic control.

Storm began Thursday with massive flare

This image from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the sun at 12:45 ET on July 12, 2012 during what scientists call an X1.4 class flare. (NASA/SDO/AIA)

A solar storm that began with a massive flare on the sun's surface Thursday is due to slam into Earth's magnetic field Saturday morning and last through Sunday.

Scientists said it will be a minor event, and they have notified power grid operators, airlines and other potentially affected parties.

"We don't see any ill effects to any systems," said forecaster Joe Kunches at the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado.

There's a bright side to stormy space weather: it tends to spawn colorful northern lights as the charged particles bombard Earth's outer magnetic field. Shimmering auroras might be visible at the United States-Canada border and northern Europe this weekend, Kunches said.

Massive flare signalled start of storm

The storm began Thursday when the sun unleashed a massive flare that hurled a cloud of highly charged particles racing toward Earth at 4.8 million kilometres per hour. It was the sixth time this year that such a powerful solar outburst has occurred. None of the previous storms caused major problems.

An image combining observations of magnetic fields on the sun and giant loops of solar material overlying the region where the flare originated. (NASA/SDO/AIA )

In severe cases, solar storms can cause power blackouts, damage satellites and disrupt GPS signals and high-frequency radio communications. Airlines are sometimes forced to reroute flights to avoid the extra radiation around the north and south poles.

In 1989, a strong solar storm knocked out the power grid in Quebec, causing six million people to lose electricity.

Juha-Pekka Luntama, a space weather expert at the European Space Agency, said utility and navigation operators "will certainly see something, but they will probably find ways to deal with any problems."

The storm is part of the sun's normal 11-year cycle of solar activity, which is supposed to peak next year.