Solar flares cause concern over possible communication disruptions

TAMPA - Major solar storms over the past several days have some fearing disruptions in communications and the electrical power grid.

Retired electrical engineer and longtime "ham" radio operator Ed Erny of St. Petersburg has been hearing the effects of high solar activity.

"The first thing I noticed was the HF (High Frequency) bands, really Shortwave bands, they were really quiet. There were no signals to be heard," Erny said, showing FOX 13 a computer screen displaying solar activity.

He says they're the highest readings he's ever seen. It was caused by solar flares shooting out from the sun.

"Basically, what happens is part of the sun lifts off the surface.  So, this plasma, the charged particles, the magnetic field that makes up the sun, part of it lifts off the sun and streams away into space," said Ian Cohen of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.

"It could cause a lot of problems for electrical power lines, even pipelines that absorb this magnetic energy and then have currents flowing through them that are unexpected," said Erny.

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If this had happened before satellites, it would have wiped out ship-to-shore communications and grounded planes. Back then, they navigated with radio. Normally, HF radio signals will bounce off the atmosphere.

"And it can even bounce up and down again, so we can communicate around the earth," said Erny. "This past weekend, we couldn't do that. You didn't hear anything. Nobody heard you."

Even as the solar activity began to subside Monday, Erny's antennas, which normally allow him to talk around the world, could only get as far as Indiana. A radio operator there says he has been shut out by the solar storm, too.

"The sun can do this to us at any time," says Erny. "It's unpredictable really."

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