Blown Out of Proportion

I got an email this morning from a mailing list at Sky and Telescope Magazine run by Cary Oler:

It is remarkable how often the news media take scattered facts, throw

them together incorrectly and then claim authenticity. Such was the case in

abundance for the space weather storm of 24 October. Media reports that this

storm would be a “perfect storm” or the “once in a 100 year event” were

shamefully inaccurate.

I guess I was one of those taken in. But why? I’m usually pretty cynical of these things, even when the Drudge headline said ‘Perfect space storm’ coming to Earth… ” I still did loads of research on-line trying to understand what was going on.

If this wasn’t big, then NASA’s website wasn’t helping:

This week researchers have been observing an enormous sunspot the size of Jupiter. As a result of associated flares, NOAA predicts strong geomagnetic storms to hit Earth on Friday with the potential to affect electrical grids and satellite communications. Aurora may be visible as far south as Oregon and Illinois. Meanwhile, scientists are watching another large sunspot rotate toward us with potential for even more powerful and prevalent explosions.

And, from another NASA site:

Earlier this week, a large sunspot region caught the attention of many sungazers around the world. Sunspot region 10484 was associated with several powerful solar flares, including one X-class event (the most powerful category). The sunspots in the region covers more than 1700 millionths of the visible solar surface, or 10 times the surface of the entire Earth!

But hold on! Another region, number 10486, has rotated onto the solar disk, showing even more signs of activity. And this particular region caught the attention of solar physicists while it was still on the far side of the Sun! In the MDI instrument’s far side imaging pictures, it showed considerable development over a short period of time. The rapid growth was noted by KehCheng Chu of Stanford University, but the fact was not widely publicized. “The data were a bit scarce, and there was a chance that the images were influenced by this,” says Phil Scherrer, Principal Investigator for MDI.

The speculations have been vindicated by a lot of activity (including an even stronger X flare) coming from this new region. Although not quite as large in sunspot area (1160 millionths of the visible surface), it is still considered somewhat more likely to produce the most powerful flares.

I’m not upset that I got to talk about the flares and sunspots. There’s great supporting video and hopefully people got a little more understanding of what’s going on in space. I’m more worried that people in the scientific community are willing to exaggerate.

Science is the last place that should happen.

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