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What's a coronal mass ejection?

Jeff Caldwell 03/08/2012 @ 9:24am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

There's a different CME in the news this week.

It's the solar phenomenon coronal mass ejection, not the Chicago Merchantile Exchange, that's been making headlines around the world this week. It's basically a sunspot-driven solar storm that erupted Tuesday and shot tons of electromagnetic energy into space, and when that energy starts making its way to earth, there may be some minor effects on the farm.



See how a solar flare created a coronal mass ejection (video courtesy NASA)


For the last few months, sunspot activity has been near its peak level; this can cause occasional disruption to some communication channels, namely radio and satellite transmissions. During a coronal mass ejection, the chances of those types of disruptions happening grow exponentially. Still, says Iowa state climatologist Harry Hillaker, it's not enough to cause major problems, even for those farmers who may be using satellite guidance and/or radio signals in the field.

"The worries are about really big magnetic storms is it could, besides radio and satellite interference, potentially result in blackouts and that sort of thing. But, that would be pretty rare," Hillaker says.

The apex of sunspot activity typically happens every 11 years, he adds, and the effects are usually fairly short-lived, a matter of a day or 2. And, during a time of high sunspot activity, it usually means about 1% more solar energy that's emitted.

Looking ahead, Hillaker says there's research underway on the potential link between the amount of solar radiation emitted from the sun and the amount of clouds and precipitation around the planet. Though this too is likely a "fairly small correlation," the cyclical nature of solar activity and its potential link to weather on earth could help explain certain weather patterns and trends.

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