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Idaho Voices

There’s good reason to keep track of the sun

Sun., June 20, 2010

There are many reasons for scientists, including meteorologists, to keep track of what’s going on with our sun. First and foremost, it is the driving force behind our weather. Differential heating across the earth is what causes the movement of water and air, transferring energy from one part of the globe to another.

But in addition to light and heat, the sun also produces outbursts of energy called solar flares. These “storms” on the sun, can have significant impacts on earth by disrupting power grids, GPS devices and interfering with both military and civilian communications. While meteorologists at the National Weather Service keep an eye on storms in our atmosphere and forecast upcoming weather conditions, scientists at the Space Weather Prediction Center do the same for the sun.

A variety of ground and space-based sensors are used to see activity at various depths of the sun’s atmosphere. Space weather forecasters look at patterns of solar activity and make use of computer models to predict events on the time scale of hours to weeks. By anticipating the occurrence of major solar flares, adjustments can be made to prevent major disruptions of power grids, satellites and polar flights.

Speaking of the sun, we could use an outburst of solar energy to warm things up around here. After a nice warm-up last weekend, temperatures once again took a nosedive, resulting in a record cold maximum in Spokane on June 16 of only 52 degrees. This broke the previous record of 54 degrees set back in 1949. Minor flooding also was an issue around small creeks and streams across North Idaho, due to heavy rains on already saturated ground.

While precipitation locally has been bountiful, it has definitely not caused the problems seen across Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma over the past week. A phenomenon called flash flooding was the cause for at least 20 fatalities at a western Arkansas campground. Flash flooding differs from river flooding in that river flooding can develop over many days, while a flash flood happens within minutes or hours of excessive rainfall.


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