Northern Ireland

NI could be plunged into darkness if solar flare hits

Solar flare
Image caption NI could be hit by solar flare. Photo courtesy of Mila

Northern Ireland could be plunged into darkness by a solar flare within the next two years, according to some scientist's predictions.

The suggestion has been made after a study of the sun's 11-year approximate cycle.

During this time, the number of 'active' regions (places where there are large sunspots) increases for over five years and then falls off.

We have passed through the quiet part of the solar cycle and are starting back into the active part of the cycle.

Mark Gibbs is a space weather expert at the Met Office.

He said: "We cannot predict with certainty if or when very large flares, known as coronal mass ejections, might happen.

"We can only say they are much more likely to occur in the active part of the 11-year solar cycle, peaking around 2013."

The UK Met Office and the US National Weather Service are working on predicting these solar flares to ensure better preparation.

Mr Gibbs said: "We are trying to work with our UK and international partners to try to pull together all the expert knowledge so we can predict these solar events better".

If this prediction is correct, there could be of the biggest blasts from the sun in over 150 years.

Dr Ciaran Beggan, a geophysicist at Edinburgh University said a solar flare, "is a small eruption".

He explained: "It is a brightening on the surface of the sun, but that is a relatively small event.

"What we are really worried about are coronal mass ejections, very large eruptions on the sun, which take between one and three days to reach the earth.

"The problems arise when they interact with the earth's magnetic field and the upper atmosphere."

In 1989 a geomagnetic storm hit Quebec and plunged six million people into darkness.

If there is a solar flare Dr Beggan said "there will be no impact on human health".

He said: "It will have an impact on technology, particularly technology that uses satellites such as GPS and it can affect power grids."

Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) will be prepared should a solar flare hit, according to its director of health and safety Roy Coulter.

"In Northern Ireland we have a very comprehensive meshed infrastructure that does not rely on single points of failure", he said.

"We are working closely with our owners, the Electricity Supply Board and all of the electricity companies including the National Grid to really understand this so we have a co-ordinated response if there is an issue."