Earth escapes disaster from massive solar flare

The Earth has narrowly escaped a potentially damaging geomagnetic storm, after a massive solar flare brought down radio communications and GPS devices when it glanced off the North pole, according to US space agency NASA.

The storm began at 01:56 GMT on Tuesday, when a massive eruption in a sunspot the size of the planet Jupiter produced what's known as a 'Class X flash' - the most powerful type of solar event.

The eruption sent a torrent of charged plasma particles, known as a 'coronal mass ejection' or CME, hurtling toward Earth at around 560 miles a second (900km a second).

News agency AFP reports that the flare jammed shortwave radio communications in southern China, and lit up the sky with aurora for some viewers in the northern hemisphere.

Luckily for Earth, the CME struck a glancing blow against the atmosphere near the North Pole. Experts warn that a direct hit from an CME could cause widespread blackouts of radio communications, interfere with GPS navigational systems, and possibly lead to power outages.

Project scientist Dean Persnell of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory confirmed that Earth had had a lucky escape from the effects of the recent flare.

"In this case, it appears it will curve around and not hit us," he said, adding that NASA's official forecast is for "generally quiet conditions today, perhaps some minor storming tomorrow, but nothing extraordinary".

But Persnell said that solar activity is on the increase, and warned of more CMEs to come.

"We are seeing more and more sunspots as what we call solar cycle 24 is turning on," he said. "At the peak we might see several of these CMEs a day coming off the sun."

"But they have only a five to ten per cent chance of hitting us. We have to be in exactly the right place for that piece of spiral to come hit us. We'll see many more coming off the sun than we have hitting us here on Earth."

A 2008 report by NASA-led scientists warned that sustained and powerful outbreak of solar flares could overwhelm national energy grids.

The report, Severe Space Weather Events - Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts said that such an event could cause damage that would take as much as ten years to repair, costing the United States up to two trillion dollars during the first year alone.