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Solar storms: 5 key facts about sun's dangerous, dazzling flares

Mounira Al HmoudThe Christian Science Monitor
The northern lights from Shishmaref on March 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Ken Stenek
Northern lights dance over Cook Inlet at West Anchorage's Earthquake Park
Frank Keller photo
Aurora borealis dances in Alaska during January 2012 solar storm
Rebekah Cadigan photo
If you need an excuse for a road trip, pack up the camera gear, bundle up the kids and head out beyond the city lights for a glimpse at these amazing displays in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Brandon Lovett photo
Northern lights during a March 2012 solar storm.
Photo courtesy Sandee Rice
Northern Lights over Talkeetna Airport, 2-18-12
Photo courtesy Josh Martinez
Northern Lights over Talkeetna Airport, 2-18-12
Photo courtesy Josh Martinez
The northern lights came out in North Pole for Valentine's day one day early. Feb 13, 2013
Courtesy Lara Poirrier / Northern Source Images
Shooting the northern lights requires some testing for the novice. It's time to start! If the preview shows up black, do not, repeat, DO NOT, delete. Your camera will capture more than meets the eye.
Brandon Lovett photo
The Anchorage light pollution and moon were no match for this brilliant show!
Photo courtesy Holly Weiss-Racine
Northern Lights over the Elliot Highway on January 22, 2012
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
Taken up near Chatanika, north of Fairbanks, on Jan. 21, 2012
Sandra Osborne photo
The northern lights came out in North Pole for Valentine's day one day early. Feb 13, 2013
Courtesy Lara Poirrier / Northern Source Images
At times aurora borealis activity comes in spurts. For all you photographers out there braving the cold, hoping to get some good pictures, don't head out or give up after the first show. Instead, consider heading back to your car and warming up.
Brandon Lovett photo
Northern lights over Palmer on March 8, 2012.
Photo courtesy Thom Swavely
Aurora borealis in Goldstream Valley, Alaska, during January 2012 solar storm
Rebekah Cadigan photo
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
The northern lights came out in North Pole for Valentine's day one day early. Feb 13, 2013
Courtesy Lara Poirrier / Northern Source Images
Brilliant green northern lights can be seen from Birch Hill Cemetery in Fairbanks, Alaska. Watching these lights dance across the sky is one of the few events Alaskans have to look forward to during the long, dark, cold months of winter.
Brandon Lovett photo
This photo was taken from Fairbanks, Alaska, a popular viewing place for Alaskans and visitors alike to sneak a peak at the lights. In fact, Fairbanks is such a popular location that some hotels offer wake up calls so you won't miss prime viewing time.
Brandon Lovett photo
Northern Lights from Earthquake Park, March 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Christy Hedrick
Northern lights over Anchorage
Ryan Soderlund photo
Shot with a 1981 Canon Ae-1 over a 10-minute exposure period at Denali National Park, Alaska on Jan. 17, 2012.
Finney Kimsey photo
The northern lights came out in North Pole for Valentine's day one day early. Feb 13, 2013
Courtesy Lara Poirrier / Northern Source Images
Taken March 19th, 2012 at 1am in North Pole, Alaska. We had a North Pole Police officer pull over and check on what we were doing out in the middle of the street.
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
March 2012 northern lights.
Photo courtesy Colin Tyler Bogucki
Aurora borealis dancing during the early hours of January 22, 2012. As seen from the Elliot Highway.
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
Aurora viewed at Point Woronzof in West Anchorage, dancing over Fire Island in Cook Inlet.
Frank Keller photo
Northern Lights dancing above the Knik River early morning April 25, 2012.
Courtesy Arlen Ayojiak
The northern lights in March 2012 at milepost 201 on the Parks Highway.
Tracy Petersen photo
The northern lights and full moon.
Photo courtesy Colin Tyler Bogucki
Aurora borealis over Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Sam Amato photo
Northern lights dancing over Palmer, Alaska, on Jan. 24, 2012
Andrea Humphreys photo
Northern Lights dancing above the Knik River early morning April 25, 2012.
Courtesy Arlen Ayojiak
The northern lights in winter 2012.
Lucie Steiger photo
Northern lights near Cold Foot, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Mike Criss, akphotograph.com
Northen lights over the North Slope
Ryan Soderlund photo
Northern Lights over Talkeetna Airport, 2-18-12
Photo courtesy Josh Martinez
Aurora timelapse over Valdez April 24, 2012
The Living Alaska Project photo
The northern lights in winter 2012.
Lucie Steiger photo
Aurora near Cold Foot, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Mike Criss, akphotograph.com
Northen lights over the North Slope 2
Ryan Soderlund photo
Northern Lights over Bethel on January 25, 2012.
Joe "Jojo" Prince photo
The Northern Lights near Cantwell on April 12, 2012.
Courtesy Todd List
The northern lights in winter 2012.
Lucie Steiger photo
The aurora over North Pole, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
Aurora borealis over house.
Sam Amato photo
Northern lights dance over Bethel Alaska during the solar storm in January of 2012.
Joe "Jojo" Prince photo
The Northern Lights in Nikiski, AK on March 9, 2012.
Courtesy Leon Richard
Aurora in Eagle River. March, 2012.
Photo courtesy Curtis Bingham
A rocket launched from Poker Flats to study the northern lights heads skyward.
Photo courtesy Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
Northern lights over the North Slope
Ryan Soderlund photo
Cherry red aurora borealis over the Elliot Highway during the early hours of January 22, 2012.
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
The northern lights dancing over a home in Fairbanks, Alaska, during St. Patrick's Day weekend 2012.
Brandon Lovett photo
Northern lights over the Cordova harbor on March 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Chelsea Haisman
February aurora over North Pole, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
Northern lights over the North Slope
Ryan Soderlund photo
A red hue to the aurora borealis over the Elliot Highway during the solar flare event of January 2012.
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
A stunning display of the northern lights from Fairbanks, Alaska. March is prime time for aurora viewing, especially during the two weeks around new moon.
Brandon Lovett photo
Aurora in Eagle River. March, 2012.
Photo courtesy Curtis Bingham
February aurora over North Pole, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
Northern lights dance over the mountains at Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Sam Amato photo
Traditionally, a good time for viewing and photographing aurora borealis activity is between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. But don't bank on it: during strong solar storms aurora can be seen at all hours once the sky darkens.
Brandon Lovett photo
Ursa Major Amongst Aurora. Hatcher Pass, AK March, 9 2012
Photo courtesy Rick Antonio
Northern Lights outside of Delta Junction on Feb. 18, 2012.
Photo courtesy Andrew Downing
Northern lights over Hatcher Pass in the Mat-Su
Sam Amato photo
Captured from Birch Hill Cemetery in Fairbanks, Alaska, this photo shows that sometimes, no trees or background are needed, the beauty of the northern lights can stand alone.
Brandon Lovett photo
The northern lights were so beautiful in Anchorage around 3am.
Photo courtesy of Moira C. Choi
Aurora outside of Delta Junction on February 18, 2012.
Photo courtesy Andrew Downing
Northern lights over Bethel, Alaska on January 25, 2012
Joe "Jojo" Prince photo
March 20th marks the first day of the spring equinox during which northern lights viewing is at its peak.
Brandon Lovett photo
March 2012 aurora from Chena Hot Springs Road.
Photo courtesy Thomas Popple
Aurora borealis over Healy, Alaska on Feb. 18, 2012
Bob Lype photo
Shot this back in October 2011 at Beluga Lake in Homer about 2am. Have not seen recent activitiy here (during January 2012 solar storms) due to cloud cover and snow.
Steve Young photo
Photographers, it's time to get out your cameras! Prime time for norther lights viewing is during March around the spring equinox. The best time for photographing this wonder is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. but with the increase in solar activity, you could catch a glimpse of them pretty much whenever it gets dark.
Brandon Lovett photo

The sun unleashed a huge flare on Thursday, launching a stream of electrically charged plasma in the direction of Earth at about three million miles per hour. When the solar storm struck our planet's magnetic field on Saturday, it produced a dazzling northern lights display that could be seen as far south as the northern United States.

Here are five key facts about solar storms:

They start with an explosion equivalent to billions of nuclear bombs

A solar flare is a sudden explosion on the surface of the sun, releasing as much energy as a billion megatons of TNT, according to NASA. (By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was equivalent to, at most 0.017 megatons of TNT.)

Most solar flares are accompanied by coronal mass ejections, huge streams of charged plasma that travel at millions of miles per hour.

They can wreak havoc on electronics and power grids

These coronal mass ejections, when they strike the Earth, can cause moderate to serious geomagnetic storms, disrupting GPS satellites and knocking out power grids.

The CME produced by a February 2011 X-class solar flare, the highest classification, disrupted radio communications in China.

A 2008 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that a major solar storm could cause twenty times the economic damage of Hurricane Katrina.

They make for dazzling northern lights display

Geomagnetic storms can provoke intense displays of the northern and southern lights.

Scientists say that the colorful, dancing auroras be seen at the poles of the Earth because the charged particles get trapped in the Earth’s magnetic field and are then channeled along magnetic field lines.

How dangerous they are depend on how fast they are moving

Studying the speed of high-energy particles during powerful solar storms may help scientists determine their potential harm to people.

"Generally speaking, if they're slower, they'll deposit all of the energy into your body because they're not fast enough to fly right through," Joseph Kunches, a scientist at the Space Weather Prediction Center, told SPACE.com.

They come and go in cycles

The frequency of occurrences of solar flares loosely follows an 11-year solar cycle. During periods of high solar activity, there could be several storms a day. Bhen the Sun is less active, less than one flare a week could happen.

The maximum Sun's activity cycle is expected to peak in late 2013.