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What is an ion storm? In short an ion storm is just another name for a solar storm. A solar storm is caused when the sun emits a stream or cloud of charged particles and interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere. This is often the product of a particularly strong solar wind or solar flare.
Many planets in the inner solar system are subject to these storms, but Earth is one of the few planets that has suitable protection. The planet has two main lines of defense. The most visible and measurable one is the atmosphere. The molecules that make up the atmosphere act as physical barrier that deflect and filter out most of the radiation emitted by an ion storm. The other line of defense is invisible. This defense is the Earth’s magnetosphere. This is the magnetic field that is produced by the Earth’s iron core and the planet’s rotation. This field of magnetic force acts in the same way as two magnets with the same pole interact. It uses like charges to repel the ions.
For the most part you would never be aware of a solar storm; however, there are some signs that can be seen by the naked eye. The one that most people are familiar with is the Norther Lights. If you are near the poles you will see a colorful display of shimmering lights in the Northern night sky. These are the result of the interaction of the ions from the solar wind with Earth’s atmosphere.
While for the most part ion storms are relatively harmless to life particularly strong storms can disrupt technology. A strong ion storm acts like an electromagnetic pulse frying electrical circuits. To show you what a strong ion storm can do you can look no further than the solar storm that struck in 1859. That storm was so powerful it disrupted all telegraph lines in Europe and North America.
In modern times the damage would be several times greater. We now use more electrical devices and technology than even just 50 years ago. For example a strong storm could disable many of important telecommunications satellites in space and knock out power for several regions world wide. The best warning we have to help prepare for such strong storms are patterns of solar activity. Strong ion storms tend to happen every 11 years at the end of the Sun’s solar cycle when the Sun’s magnetic poles reverse themselves. Using this prediction scientist are warning that 2012 and the following years can be very active.
If you enjoyed this article there are others on universe today that you will be sure to enjoy. There is an interesting piece on Solar Flares. There is also an interesting article about the surface of the Sun.
There are other great articles and resources that you can check out online. Wired.com has an interesting piece on the possible solar storm in 2012. There is also on interesting article on the astronomy web page of the University of Montana web site.
You can also listen to Astronomy Cast. There are several episode on topics about space and astronomy. You should definitely take a look at Episode 108, the Life of the Sun.