03/08/2012 05:38 EST | Updated 05/08/2012 05:12 EDT

Solar Storm: Flares Reach Canada, Few Problems Reported


TORONTO - The earth may be in the grip of a solar storm the likes of which hasn't been seen for years, but to look at Canada, you'd never know it.

Officials say the volley of highly charged solar energy particles concentrated around the North Pole has barely registered on Canada's power grids or satellite systems.

Those are two of the networks most likely to be sidelined by a magnetic disturbance.

Robyn Fiori, a physicist with the Canadian Space Weather Forecast Centre, says the only evidence a storm was underway came from the magnetic pole at the epicentre of the solar onslaught.

Energy particles scuttled some radio communication in the area and caused occasional variations in GPS navigation systems, she said.

Even those glitches appeared to go unnoticed by one of the industries that rely most heavily on such technology. WestJet reported the solar storm had "no impact whatsoever" on day-to-day operations. Air Canada did not respond to request for comment.

Fiori said the solar storm _widely touted as an anomaly that could disrupt daily life _ has proven to be nothing of the sort.

"It hasn't proven to be a major solar event at all," Fiori said in a telephone interview from Ottawa.

Solar storms are caused when the sun issues a flare, or burst of light, which then sends highly charged energy particles hurtling in all directions. Queen's University physicist David Hanes said such bursts of activity happen routinely during peaks in the sun's energy cycle, which typically lasts about 11 years.

The past five or six years, he said, have been a time of unusually prolonged calm.

Fiori agreed, saying Thursday's storm appears to mark a return to normal rather than an extraordinary event.

"Right now we're heading into a period of high solar activity, it's set to peak ... maybe in May of next year," she said. "What we're seeing now is quite typical. In fact the quiet activity that we've seen over the past couple of years is what was untypical."

Forecasters had reason to suspect that Thursday's storm was out of the ordinary. The solar flare that touched off the flood of particles on Tuesday evening was reported to be one of the largest bursts registered in several years.

By the time the storm struck at about 6 a.m. EST, however, scientists said the particles were hitting the magnetic field on an angle that ensured minimal disruption.

Such storms have proven damaging for Canada in the past.

On Mar. 13, 1989, a surge of solar energy caused a magnetic fluctuation that shorted the power grid in Quebec, plunging the province into darkness for more than nine hours.

Even though hydro companies have taken steps to strengthen their infrastructures over the past 25 years, Hanes said no power grid is immune to the effects of a solar storm. A well-timed burst, he said, could blow out transformers across the country and deal a devastating blow to a society that's almost entirely reliant on electricity.

"This is sort of a wake-up call," he said. "It does remind us that similar things can happen on larger scales."