Friday, March 9, 2012

Solar Flare: What If Biggest Known Sun Storm Hit Today?

A huge solar flare.
Richard A. Lovett
Updated March 8, 2012
A powerful sun storm—associated with the second biggest solar flare of the current 11-year sun cycle—is now hitting Earth, so far with few consequences. But the potentially "severe geomagnetic storm," in NASA's wordscould disrupt power grids, radio communications, and GPS as well as spark dazzling auroras.
The storm expected Thursday, though, won't hold a candle to an 1859 space-weather event, scientists say—and it's a good thing too.
If a similar sun storm were to occur in the current day—as it well could—modern life could come to a standstill, they add.
As solar storms go, the two March 6 solar flares associated with Thursday's geomagnetic storm around Earth may not compare to the flares behind the 1859 storm. But, since the sun hasn't yet reached peak activity for this solar cycle, this week's outburst may be only a taste of flares to come.
"The sun has an activity cycle, much like hurricane season," Tom Bogdan, director of the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, said \at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. in 2011.
After "hibernating for four or five years, not doing much of anything," the sun began waking up about a year ago. Even though the upcoming solar maximum may see a record low in the overall amount of activity, the individual events could be very powerful, Bogdan added.
In fact, the biggest solar storm on record—the 1859 blast—happened during a solar maximum about the same size as the one we're entering, according to NASA.
That storm has been dubbed the Carrington Event, after British astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed the megaflare and was the first to realize the link between activity on the sun and geomagnetic disturbances on Earth.
During the Carrington Event, northern lights were reported as far south as Cuba and Honolulu, while southern lights were seen as far north as Santiago, Chile. (See pictures of auroras generated by the Valentine's Day solar flare.)
The flares were so powerful that "people in the northeastern U.S. could read newspaper print just from the light of the aurora," Daniel Baker, of the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, said at a geophysics meeting in December 2010.
In addition, the geomagnetic disturbances were strong enough that U.S. telegraph operators reported sparks leaping from their equipment—some bad enough to set fires, said Ed Cliver, a space physicist at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in Bedford, Massachusetts.
In 1859, such reports were mostly curiosities. But if something similar happened today, the world's high-tech infrastructure could grind to a halt.
"What's at stake," the Space Weather Prediction Center's Bogdan said, "are the advanced technologies that underlie virtually every aspect of our lives."
Solar Flare Would Rupture Earth's "Cyber Cocoon"
To begin with, the University of Colorado's Baker said, electrical disturbances as strong as those that took down telegraph machines—"the Internet of the era"—would be far more disruptive. (See "The Sun: Living With a Stormy Star" inNational Geographic magazine.)
Solar storms aimed at Earth come in three stages, not all of which occur in any given storm.
First, high-energy sunlight, mostly x-rays and ultraviolet light, ionizes Earth's upper atmosphere, interfering with radio communications. Next comes a radiation storm, potentially dangerous to unprotected astronauts.
Finally comes a coronal mass ejection, or CME, a slower moving cloud of charged particles that can take several days to reach Earth's atmosphere. When a CME hits, the solar particles can interact with Earth's magnetic field to produce powerful electromagnetic fluctuations. (Related: "Magnetic-Shield Cracks Found; Big Solar Storms Expected.")
"We live in a cyber cocoon enveloping the Earth," Baker said. "Imagine what the consequences might be."
Of particular concern are disruptions to global positioning systems (GPS), which have become ubiquitous in cell phones, airplanes, and automobiles, Baker said. A $13 billion business in 2003, the GPS industry is predicted to grow to nearly $1 trillion by 2017.
In addition, Baker said, satellite communications—also essential to many daily activities—would be at risk from solar storms.
"Every time you purchase a gallon of gas with your credit card, that's a satellite transaction," he said.
But the big fear is what might happen to the electrical grid, since power surges caused by solar particles could blow out giant transformers. Such transformers can take a long time to replace, especially if hundreds are destroyed at once, said Baker, who is a co-author of a National Research Council report on solar-storm risks.
The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory's Cliver agrees: "They don't have a lot of these on the shelf," he said.
The eastern half of the U.S. is particularly vulnerable, because the power infrastructure is highly interconnected, so failures could easily cascade like chains of dominoes.
"Imagine large cities without power for a week, a month, or a year," Baker said. "The losses could be $1 to $2 trillion, and the effects could be felt for years."
Even if the latest solar maximum doesn't bring a Carrington-level event, smaller storms have been known to affect power and communications.
The "Halloween storms" of 2003, for instance, interfered with satellite communications, produced a brief power outage in Sweden, and lighted up the skies with ghostly auroras as far south as Florida and Texas.

Jessica Simpson 'couldn't wait' to pose naked at 170 pounds

Jessica Simpson joked in a telephone interview today that she "couldn't wait" to pose naked for the cover ofElle at 170 pounds. "Normally I'm hoping to be 107 pounds and I don't eat, but" – in homage to the cheesecake pose, perhaps – "I ate cheesecake before we shot."
The set was closed: just Simpson; her fiancé, Eric Johnson; her publicist and a couple best friends. "I wasn't nervous at all," she says (at least, not until the night before it hit newsstands). "Normally, I'm so shy. I'm not the person you see photographed in a bikini on a beach. But for some reason, being pregnant, it's so easy for me. I feel so comfortable in my skin."
The response to seeing so much of her skin? "I'm glad people are reacting positively," says Simpson, 31, who stars as one of three mentors on NBC's Fashion Star, premiering March 13. "It's just really a celebratory moment for me."
She is anxious, however, for the finale to this pregnancy process – "for my water to break, for the day I get to go to the hospital and push. I'm more anxious than afraid. I have not been afraid the whole time. I figure if all these women all around the world can do it, I can do it."
And about that estimated 10-pound baby she'll deliver? "She's in the 90th percentile of weight right now, so she's a big un. She's going to be a very big baby, but I guess that's what I get for letting a baller knock me up."
And will Baby Girl's moniker be as nontraditional as, say, Cousin Bronx Mowgli's? Her mom won't say, but she does reveal that sister Ashlee's 3-year-old son approves of it.
"Bronx definitely loves her name, oh, yeah," says Simpson. "He talks to her in my belly all the time. It really makes your heart melt. He's already got a box of old toys he's put together" for her. Yesterday, he said he was going to teach her how to crawl and then how to walk. "OK, you can do that, Bronx," Simpson says. "It's so cute."

Aurora Borealis 2012: Solar Flare Could Make Northern Lights Visible Much Farther South (VIDEO)

Aurora Borealis Solar Storm
Though the massive solar storm that hit earth late yesterday may cause satellite disruptions and power outages over the next 24 hours, the news isn't all bad: Scientists predict the cosmic activity will expand the reach of the Aurora Borealis tonight, making it visible for more people around the globe.
A number of news outlets from areas normally much too far south to see the lights -- like New York and Philadelphia -- have reported that residents may get a rare opportunity to see them tonight.
But as the Geophysics Institute at the University of Alaska points out, predicting when and where people will be able to see the Northern Lights is often difficult, especially because sightings can be effected by weather phenomena like rain and clouds.
Luckily, a number of research institutes have developed tools available on the Internet to help people determine the probability of seeing the lights in their area.
The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, offers an Aurora forecast map that allows user to zoom in on their region. The map shows the approximate time a particular area will experience the greatest level of geomagnetic activity.
But in case the tool is down or lagging behind due to satellite interference, the institute also offers a more detailed set of maps showing the current "Geophysical Activity Forecast," a number measuring of the amount of geomagnetic activity in the atmosphere over a 3-hour period on a scale of 1 to 9.
Knowing the Geophysical Activity Forecast makes it possible to figure out the likelihood of seeing the lights using charts, the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center explains in its guide to viewing the Aurora.

'Lone Ranger' photo shows dramatic update with Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer

From producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski comes Disney/Bruckheimer Films' "The Lone Ranger." Tonto (Johnny Depp), a spirit warrior on a personal quest, joins forces in a fight for justice with John Reid (Armie Hammer), a lawman who has become a masked avenger.


Johnny Depp plays Tonto opposite Armie Hammer as the masked avenger in "The Lone Ranger,"  directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. It's filming now in New Mexico for a May 2013 release.

Armie Hammer, best known for playing both Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network,” is saddled up as the titular Western vigilante in the first photo released from next year’s “Lone Ranger” movie.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer tweeted out the sneak peek on Thursday.
Even more striking though is the man behind the makeup as the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto. Johnny Depp, who has said in past interviews that he is part Cherokee, plays the Native American hero.
Aside from the incredible winged headdress, Depp told Entertainment Weekly moviegoers can expect a less cartoonish Tonto than the one made famous in the early ’50s television series.
“I remember watching it as a kid, with Jay Silverheels and Clayton Moore, and going: ‘Why is the f—ing Lone Ranger telling Tonto what to do?’ ” Depp told the magazine last year. “I liked Tonto, even at that tender age, and knew Tonto was getting the unpleasant end of the stick here. That’s stuck with me. And when the idea came up (for the movie), I started thinking about Tonto and what could be done in my own small way try to . . . reinvent the relationship.”
“Lone Ranger” is currently shooting in New Mexico, reuniting director Gore Verbinski with Depp, his “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Rango” star.

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Import of gas, electricity from Iran

Pakistan stands firm against US pressure

ISLAMABAD: Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, rejecting US threats of economic sanctions on promotion of economic ties between Pakistan and Iran, said on Thursday that the country would extend its cooperation with Iran in the field of energy. However, she also said that no agreement would be signed against national interest. 
Addressing a news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Khar, rejecting the American objections on Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline, gave a clear message to Washington that Islamabad would make a decision keeping national interests a priority. To a query, the foreign minister once again reiterated the commitment that an accord with Iran on a gas pipeline would be inked without any external pressure. 
“Pakistan is pursuing important projects with Iran, such as gas pipeline, electricity transmission, and also building a more robust trade partnership between the two countries,” Khar said. “All of these projects are in Pakistan’s national interest and will be pursued and completed irrespective of any extraneous consideration.”
Being selective: Brushing aside pressures, Khar said, “As far as bilateral relations and cooperation is concerned we don’t make it contingent on views and policies of any third country. I think all our friends are encouraged to understand the real energy crisis facing Pakistan. We can’t afford to be selective of where we receive our energy supply from.”
To a question about threats from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to impose sanctions on Pakistan if it continued with the gas project with Iran, the foreign minister said, “We will cross the bridge when it will come.”
She, however, hoped that the international community would look into the matter and find a way to resolve the issue through peaceful negotiations on Iran’s nuclear issue and sanctions on Pakistan would not be imposed.
Regarding Pak-US ties, she said that joint sitting of parliament would be summoned by mid-March, in which the members would review future status of the Pak-US ties based upon mutual respect and equality. 
Commenting on the Afghanistan issue, Khar was of the view that Pakistan wanted to have good and peaceful ties with Afghanistan. To another query, she said that resumption of NATO supply would be decided by parliament. 
She said seeking aid was not the aim, rather Pakistan would like to enhance its mercantile ties with other nations of the world. She said ties with Iran and Afghanistan would be strengthened, adding that Pakistan would seek assistance wherever it was available without any external pressure.
Khar also said that relations with the United States, NATO and ISAF would be promoted on the basis of mutual respect and in line with the policy devised by parliament. She said the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Policy would finalise its recommendations by the second week of this month.
“We want to add the element of credibility with the United States,” she said.
Khar said Pakistan wanted to maintain friendly relations with all its neighbours, including India, adding that there was enthusiasm from both the sides to improve ties. She said the two governments had been working together to build a level of trust for mutual benefit of the two nations.
To a question on awarding India the status of most-favoured nation and Kashmir issue, the FM explained that Pakistan had not compromised on its principled stand on Kashmir and would remain committed to the resolution of this issue through dialogue. She said the MFN status was necessary to normalise trade activities between the two countries. manzoor qadir/agencies

Indian ships will lose insurance due to Iran sanctions, may look to China

NEW DELHI/SINGAPORE: Indian shipping firms will find it difficult to obtain replacement insurance coverage to continue importing Iranian crude oil after new European Union sanctions come into effect, industry sources said.
State-run Shipping Corp. of India, the largest tanker owner in India, will lose its EU insurance coverage for its oil tankers operating in Iran from July 1, when European insurers will be prohibited from indemnifying ships carrying Iranian oil.
Indian maritime firms are likely to be the most affected in Asia by the sanctions as the other two biggest buyers China and Japan do not rely on European insurers but are covered by domestic providers. India, China and Japan are Iran's three biggest crude oil buyers.
"We are covered by P&I clubs in the EU," Sunil Thapar, director at Shipping Corp of India told Reuters, referring to the groups of customer-owned maritime protection and indemnity insurance groups.
"These clubs will not be able to give us coverage for vessels to Iran from July. It will be difficult for Indian shipping lines to transport Iranian crude unless alternative arrangements are made." SCI owns 39 oil tankers.
Europe and the United States are implementing tougher sanctions in the hope that isolating Iran will force Tehran to halt its atomic programme, which the West fears will be used to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran, the biggest producer in OPEC after Saudi Arabia, denies Western suspicions that its programme has military goals, saying it is for purely peaceful purposes.
Iran, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter is struggling to retain its top consumers as stricter sanctions and an embargo make it impossible to trade with the Islamic Republic.
Iran will export a six-month low volume of fuel oil to East Asia in March due to sanctions and volumes will likely drop further as the EU embargo approaches.
FEWER OPTIONS A.P. Moller-Maersk, Singapore-based Samco Shipholding, and many other international maritime firms have halted new deals with Iran, leaving Asian oil importers to rely more on domestic and state-run firms to handle the OPEC member's shipments.
All but one of the international P&I clubs, which together cover 95 percent of the world's tankers against pollution and personal injury claims, are covered by the sanctions since they are based in the European Union or the United States.

'John Carter' review: Artistry makes up for flaws in sci-fi spectacle

For the better part of a century, filmmakers have been trying to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs' influential "Barsoom" stories for the big screen. And for the better part of a century, those efforts have failed.
0309 taylor kitsch in john carter 2.JPGIn 'John Carter,' based on the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'Barsoom' books, Taylor Kitsch, right, finds himself in another world entirely.
In the meantime, filmmaker after filmmaker has drawn inspiration from Burroughs' sci-fi tales, about a Civil War veteran mysteriously transported to a populated, war-torn Mars, where he is transformed into a sort of pre-"Superman" Superman thanks to the gravitational differences between Earth and the red planet.
George Lucas drew from Burroughs' stories for "Star Wars." James Cameron drew from them for "Avatar." And, yes, since I brought it up, "Superman" co-creator Jerry Siegel was inspired by Burroughs' work as well.
So it's a triumph in and of itself that director Andrew Stanton finally has managed to get "John Carter" -- based on "A Princess of Mars," the first book in the "Barsoom" series -- committed to celluloid. That it stands as a technical marvel and an eyeball-tickling spectacle -- seamlessly blending beautiful computer animation with live-action performances -- will only further satisfy those who grew up drinking in the depth of Burroughs' wildly imaginative tales.
But while filmmakers such as Cameron and Lucas were drawing inspiration from the "Barsoom" books and paying it tribute in their own films, they also -- unfortunately and ironically -- were doing the original stories a disservice. While these stories might have been the innovative ones, and far-reaching sci-fi progenitors, they also have been robbed of much of their novelty.
For all of the love and money lavished upon "John Carter" by Stanton -- a two-time Oscar-winning Pixar director (for "Finding Nemo" and "Wall*E") and first-rate storyteller, on loan to Disney -- it ends up feeling a touch musty and overly familiar.
'John Carter' movie trailer'John Carter' movie trailerOpens March 9Watch video
Yes, Barsoom was a wondrous place when Burroughs first wrote about it in 1912, and when Stanton, Cameron and Lucas had their adolescent imaginations sparked by the stories in the following years. But at this point, it feels like we've been here before, that we've done this before.
When the titular hero -- played by the suddenly in-demand actor Taylor Kitsch ("Friday Night Lights") -- is first transported to the red planet by an alien device he finds in an Arizona cave, for instance, he is greeted by a race of towering alien beings. "Avatar" anyone?
And the desert setting -- with its curious collection of alien species, battling with humanlike tribes for control of the dying planet -- makes it feel as if it could be playing out in some distant corner of Tatooine. (I swear at one point I was waiting for the story's beautiful princess character and chief love interest -- played by the fetching Lynn Collins, in a slave-girl Leia get-up -- to slip and implore Kitsch's character: "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope.")
Even the film's sweeping score -- composed by Michael Giacchino, another Pixar Oscar winner, for his beautiful score for "Up" -- feels like something we've heard before. At various times, I was reminded of the music from any number of John Williams scores, from "Star Wars" and "E.T." to "Harry Potter."
Derivative though it might be, that music helps boost the epic feel of Stanton's film, which -- with its broadness of scope, its generosity of emotion, its sprinkling of levity and its old-fashioned sense of black-and-white morality -- feels Spielbergian at times. That's particularly true in its scenes set on Earth -- and that's intended as a compliment.
There are plenty of entertaining moments to latch onto beneath the sci-fi tropes -- and maybe even a few that will inspire a new generation of storytellers. It just feels as if "John Carter" is a little late to the interplanetary party.