The sun continues to increase its activity, sending a series of bursts and bursts of energy out into space, many of which have been directed at Earth in recent days. A coronal mass ejection (CME) of a filament about 25 degrees long lifted off from the Sun on March 3. Due to this CME, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has released another geomagnetic storm watch, with impacts from this CME expected late April 6 through April 7. In addition to pushing the auroras south in the United States, there could be impacts to electrical systems, including power grids and power plants, radio and satellite communications, and navigation systems. A second filament eruption occurred on March 4, but it appears that the CME from this event will not impact Earth.
Fortunately, it looks like the next geomagnetic storm will be minor. For now, the SWPC has a G1-Geomagnetic Storm Watch for a minor event. Scientists will continue to monitor conditions to see if a more severe geomagnetic storm occurs. If a severe G4 or extreme G5 geomagnetic storm were to materialize, it would change life on Earth, causing massive damage to anything that runs on electricity. These types of storms have affected Earth before, but before the proliferation of electricity, computers, the Internet, and satellite communications.
Although the impacts of geomagnetic disturbances are usually not visible to the naked eye, they can cause the Northern Lights to appear much further south than usual. While the aurora, also known as the aurora borealis, is visible in the high latitudes of Alaska and central and northern Canada, this geomagnetic storm could push the aurora deep into the United States. The Space Weather Prediction Center says it’s possible for auroras to shine as far south as Michigan and Maine; it’s also possible that the auroras will appear further south than that if the geomagnetic storm were stronger than currently expected.
While these solar events can help light up the skies with stunning Northern Lights, they can also wreak havoc on electronics, power grids, and satellite and radio communications.
The Incident of 1859, which occurred on September 1 and 2, 1859, is also known as the “Carrington Event”. This event unfolded as a powerful geomagnetic storm hit Earth during Solar Cycle 10. A CME hit Earth and caused the largest geomagnetic storm on record. The storm was so intense that it created extremely bright and vivid auroras all over the planet: California residents thought the sun rose early, people in the northeastern United States could read a newspaper at night thanks to in the bright light of the aurora, and people as far south as Hawaii and south-central Mexico could see the aurora in the sky.
The event severely damaged the limited power and communication lines that existed at the time; telegraph systems around the world failed, with some telegraph operators reporting receiving electric shocks.
A June 2013 study conducted by Lloyd’s of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) in the United States showed that if the Carrington event occurred in modern times, damage in the United States could exceed 2.6 trillion dollars, or about 15% of the country’s annual GDP.
More than 17 solar flares erupted from the sun yesterday; 11 were class C and 6 were class M. Solar flares are giant explosions on the sun that send energy, light and particles out into space at high speeds. These eruptions are often associated with solar magnetic storms called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Flares are classified according to a classification system that divides solar flares according to their strength. The smallest are class A (near background levels), followed by B, C, M, and X. Similar to the Richter scale for earthquakes, each letter represents a 10-fold increase in the production of ‘energy. So an X is ten times an M and 100 times a C. Within each class of letters there is a finer scale from 1 to 9. Class C and smaller flares are too weak to noticeably affect Earth. Class M flares can cause brief radio power outages at the poles and minor radiation storms that could endanger astronauts. According to NASA, although X is the last letter, there are flares more than 10 times more powerful than an X1, so X-class flares can go higher than 9. NASA says the flare the most powerful measured with modern methods was in 2003, during the last solar maximum, and it was so powerful that it overloaded the sensors that measured it. These sensors cut in X28.
Yesterday’s solar outburst caused a radio blackout and radiation storm on Earth. The radiation bursts associated with solar flares can harm not only astronauts in space, but also passengers and airline crew on Earth. According to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), “an improvement in the energetic portion of the solar radiation spectrum may indicate increased biohazard to astronauts or passengers and crew when flying at high latitudes and high altitude”. Beyond the impact on humans, the excess radiation could also harm electronics. “Energetic particles can pose an increased risk to all satellite systems sensitive to the effects of a single event. This information should be used in conjunction with current solar radiation storm conditions when assessing the overall impact,” the SWPC said in a bulletin yesterday.
Although generally known for their weather forecasts, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its National Weather Service (NWS) are also responsible for “space weather”. Although there are private companies and other agencies that monitor and forecast space weather, the official source for space environmental alerts and warnings is the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC). The SWPC is located in Boulder, Colorado and is a service center of the NWS, which is part of NOAA. The Center for Space Weather Prediction is also one of nine National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) as it monitors current space weather activity 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.