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Earth’s radioactive material could reveal secrets of solar storms

Researchers may have discovered a new method to predict solar flares more than a day before they occur, providing advance warning to help protect satellites, power grids, and astronauts from potentially dangerous radiation.

The system, which is the first of its kind, depends on radioactive decay rates on Earth. The change in radioactive elements was first noticed in 2006 when Stanford scientists sought to understand why certain elements were changing their decay rates.

“We have repeatedly seen a precursor signal preceding a solar flare,” Fischbach says in a news release. “We think this has predictive value.”

The new detection technique is based on a hypothesis that radioactive decay rates are influenced by solar activity, possibly streams of subatomic particles called solar neutrinos. The sun’s influence changes seasonal changes in the Earth’s distance from the sun and also during solar flares, according to scientists. The theory is now supported with data published in a dozen research papers since it was proposed in 2006, said Ephraim Fischbach, a Purdue University professor of physics.

Since then, researchers have been examining similar variation in decay rates before solar flares, as well as those resulting from Earth’s orbit around the sun and changes in solar rotation and activity. The new findings appeared online last week in the journal Astroparticle Physics.

The change in decay rates could provide astronomers with a unique warning system that could provide an advanced warning system for some of the strongest solar storms.

Already this year solar storms have forced the U.S. space agency NASA to change its course of action numerous times, including whether to have astronauts continue work at the International Space Station. The mass of energy poses problems to astronauts and spacecraft, which do not have the added protection of the Earth’s magnetic field, say NASA officials.

The solar storms have also caused problems for airlines, which as a safety precaution have rerouted flights flying over the North Pole. The resulting streams of radiation that bounce across the Earth’s magnetic field are able to cause long lasting radiation storms that could also impact satellite and ground communications systems.

Although the Sun’s corona has been observed during total eclipses of the Sun for thousands of years, the existence of coronal mass ejections was unrealized until the space age. NASA scientists announced in late 2011 that they expect 2012 and 2013 to be one of the most active times in recent memory for increased solar activity.

“I would expect that we will see more storms like this one or even bigger as we get closer to solar maximum,” said Michael Hesse, chief of heliophysics at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, at the time.

The possibility of a warning system also comes just weeks after a group of astronomers warned that a massive solar flare unleashed within the next two years could wipe out power grids, communications, and satellites around the world.

Experts say the sun is reaching a peak in its 10-year activity cycle, placing  the Earth at greater risk from solar storms. The team of scientists warn that an increasing reliance on computer systems and satellite-related technology may ultimately intertwine humanity’s fate with the sun’s weather cycle.

Mike Hapgood, a space weather specialist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, notes that the issue is being considered as a major concern by the governments. While such incidents rarely happen, the effects are often disastrous.

“Solar storms are increasingly being put on national risk registers used for disaster planning, alongside other events like tsunamis and volcanic eruptions,” said Mr. Hapgood. “These things may be very rare but when they happen, the consequences can be catastrophic.”

The rise in solar storms comes as NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has expanded its capability to detect and predict massive solar storms erupting from the sun. Goddard’s Space Weather Laboratory recently received support under NASA’s Space Technology Program Game Changing Program to implement “ensemble forecasting,” a computer technique already used by meteorologists to track potential paths and impacts of hurricanes and other severe weather events.

The paper was authored by Jenkins and Fischbach; Ohio State University researchers Kevin R. Herminghuysen, Thomas E. Blue, Andrew C. Kauffman and Joseph W. Talnagi; U.S. Air Force researcher Daniel Javorsek; Mayo Clinic researcher Daniel W. Mundy; and Stanford University researcher Peter A. Sturrock.