Tracks and Tales: Seeing spots

I blame the sun.

Partly because it was convenient. Partly because I was tired of blaming the usual scapegoat: the weather. And partly because the behavior seemed intense even by winter weather standards.

I refer to the several classes of students I taught last week that seemed extra squirrely. Now, I was not new to any of the students and most of them I had already taught this academic year. In other words, I already knew their standard of behavior for my programs. In comparison, the young students were particularly rambunctious last week.

One factor that often influences student behavior is the weather. I taught a fifth-grade class once when the barometer had plummeted that day and couldn?t help noticing the kids squabbling like kids much younger than their age.

When temps drop, I sometimes brace myself for younger student programs. Unable to have outside recess often means an excess of energy in the classroom.

However, even taking into account our rather strange and very unpredictable winter weather, I thought student behavior was unusual. So I blamed the solar flares.

A solar flare is kind of like an eruption on the sun?s surface that shoots out higher-than-normal levels of energy. A large solar flare erupted last week and sparked brilliant observations of the Northern Lights across the globe a couple of days later, when all that energy reached Earth.

Of course, with all that energy on a wide range of wavelengths, a solar flare can potentially interfere with communications, power grids, and other high-tech mechanisms. Spacecraft and astronauts in particular are susceptible, without the Earth?s atmosphere to afford some protection.

These flares originate near sun spots, which fluctuate on an 11-year cycle. Last year, we had only two days without any spots at all. In 2009, the opposite was true, with 260 spotless days. We?re hitting a peak of activity.

I find it interesting to discover that the first recorded solar flare is also the largest one on record in 150 years. On Sept. 1, 1859, two amateur British astronomers separately studying sun spots noted their observations of the super solar flare.

Eighteen hours later (fast for a flare), that particular flare woke up gold miners in America ? the Northern Lights were that bright. The spectacular visual display even reached as far south as the Caribbean. In comparison, our recent flare was specially photographed in Arizona, but by using long-term exposure techniques (it was not visible to the naked eye).

The 1859 flare also disrupted the high-tech communications of the time ? telegraphs. Some systems failed, some worked without even being connected to a power source, and others shocked their operators.

It has been theorized that a solar flare of this magnitude today would devastate our world, so much more dependent are we upon technology now. However, while the potential for damage is great, that same technology also allows us to observe flares as they happen and give warning ahead of time. Once prepared, our communication and power industries would take actions to minimize negative effects.

Out of curiosity, I did a Web search on solar flares and human behavior. Although I did find several articles linking conflict and flares, not one was from what I consider to be reputable. The few I looked at seemed to have New Age buzz words included.

In other words, my theory about flares and kids has no concrete evidence to support it. Ah, well, it still sounds good.