Riots, wild markets: Did space storms drive us mad?

LONDON Fri Aug 12, 2011 3:49pm BST

A handout picture shows Coronal Mass Ejection as viewed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory on June 7, 2011. REUTERS/NASA/SDO/Handout

A handout picture shows Coronal Mass Ejection as viewed by the Solar Dynamics Observatory on June 7, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/NASA/SDO/Handout

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LONDON (Reuters) - Rollercoaster financial markets and the worst riots Britain has seen in decades have made it quite a week for a time of year that is usually so dead the newspapers are filled with "silly season" tales of amusing pet antics.

Everyone is pointing fingers -- at blundering politicians, hooded thugs, disaffected youths, bumbling police and greedy bankers -- but could the cause for all the madness really be the star at the centre of our solar system?

There isn't a lot of evidence pointing to little green men involving themselves in Earthly affairs, but the sun has been throwing bursts of highly charged particles into space in a phenomenon known as coronal mass ejections or CMEs.

Three large CMEs prompted U.S. government scientists to warn of solar storms that can cause power blackouts and the aurora borealis, or northern lights, caused by disturbances in the Earth's atmosphere, have been spotted as far south as England and Colorado, NASA said.

"Earth's magnetic field is still reverberating from a CME strike on August 5th that sparked one of the strongest geomagnetic storms in years", website SpaceWeather said.

Some academics have claimed that such geomagnetic storms can affect humans, altering moods and leading people into negative behaviour through effects on their biochemistry.

Some studies have found evidence that hospital admissions for depression rise during geomagnetic storms and that incidents of suicide increase.

A 2003 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found that such storms could affect the stock market, as traders were more likely to make pessimistic choices.

"Unusually high levels of geomagnetic activity have a negative, statistically and economically significant effect on the following week's stock returns for all US stock market indices," the authors found in their report.

It could of course be mere coincidence that this has been a rollercoaster week on the markets, and that Britain was rocked by a wave of ferocious rioting and looting.

But market watchers may take comfort from the fact that the space weather forecast for Friday has gone quiet again.

They shouldn't be too complacent though. The solar cycle is on an upswing due to peak in 2013 and there are likely to be more geomagnetic storms heading Earth's way in the months to come.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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