May 30, 2024

A rare and powerful solar storm may occur in outer space today which could wreak havoc on earth, officials have warned – the first in nearly 20 years if it happens.

At least five streams of plasma, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), are heading toward Earth, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to issue a severe geomagnetic storm watch for Friday into the weekend.

This is the first such alert aired since 2005 when Earth was hit with the highest dose of radiation in a half-century.

This time around, the ‘unusual event’ could disrupt electronic devices like GPS and parts of power grids, NOAA said – while citing how it may also drape a huge portion of the country, as far south as Alabama, in colorful natural lights. 

The CMEs exploded from a massive sunspot, an area on the sun that is cooler than the surface, on May 8 – paving the way for Thursday’s alert.

In it, officials explained how the expulsions of matter and magnetic field from the celestial body’s atmosphere could cause problems for millions of earthlings as soon as noon ET Friday.

A solar or geomagnetic storm is a major disturbance of Earth’s magnetosphere – the area around Earth controlled by the planet’s magnetic field – often caused by coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Pictured, a CME from the sun, as captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite on June 17, 2015

The emergency alert read: 'NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) - a division of the National Weather Service - is monitoring the sun following a series of solar flares and coronal mass ejections that began on May 8'. Sunspots and flares spotted by scientists are seen here

The emergency alert read: ‘NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) – a division of the National Weather Service – is monitoring the sun following a series of solar flares and coronal mass ejections that began on May 8’. Sunspots and flares spotted by scientists are seen here

WHAT IS A SOLAR STORM? 

A solar or geomagnetic storm is a major disturbance of Earth’s magnetosphere – the area around Earth controlled by our planet’s magnetic field.

A solar storm occurs when there is a very efficient exchange of energy from the solar wind into the space environment surrounding Earth 

Earth’s magnetosphere is created by our magnetic field and protects us from most particles the sun emits. 

But when a CME or high-speed stream arrives at Earth it buffets the magnetosphere.

If the arriving solar magnetic field is directed southward it interacts strongly with the oppositely oriented magnetic field of the Earth. 

The Earth’s magnetic field is then peeled open like an onion allowing energetic solar wind particles to stream down the field lines to hit the atmosphere over the poles.   

Source: NASA 

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‘NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) – a division of the National Weather Service – is monitoring the sun following a series of solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that began on May 8,’ the emergency alert read.

‘Space weather forecasters have issued a Severe (G4) Geomagnetic Storm Watch for the evening of Friday. 

‘Additional solar eruptions could cause geomagnetic storm conditions to persist through the weekend,’ it went on, before describing the abnormal activity that tipped space specialists off.

‘A large sunspot cluster has produced several moderate to strong solar flares since Wednesday at 5:00 am ET,’ it read.

‘At least five flares were associated with CMEs that appear to be Earth-directed. SWPC forecasters will monitor NOAA and NASA’s space assets for the onset of a geomagnetic storm.’

CMEs are explosions of plasma and magnetic fields from the sun’s corona, which cause geomagnetic storms when they are directed at Earth.

A solar or geomagnetic storm is a major disturbance of Earth’s magnetosphere – the area around Earth controlled by the planet’s magnetic field.

And the Friday storm has been rated ‘G4’ (on a scale of one to five), making it a ‘severe’ storm.’

‘Geomagnetic storms can impact infrastructure in near-Earth orbit and on Earth’s surface,’ the statement went on, stating how the storm could ‘potentially [disrupt] communications, the electric power grid, navigation, radio and satellite operations.’

Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost. The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing the Earth's magnetic field

Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost. The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing the Earth’s magnetic field

'Additional solar eruptions could cause geomagnetic storm conditions to persist through the weekend,' officials, before describing the abnormal activity that tipped space specialists off

‘Additional solar eruptions could cause geomagnetic storm conditions to persist through the weekend,’ officials, before describing the abnormal activity that tipped space specialists off

It also could ‘wipe out the internet’ for some, scientists further warned – as NOAA upped the Geomagnetic Storm Watch from Moderate to Severe for Friday through Sunday late Thursday. 

‘SWPC has notified the operators of these systems so they can take protective action,’ officials wrote upon administering the action. 

‘Geomagnetic storms can also trigger spectacular displays of aurora on Earth,’ they added of some of the potential storm’s more scenic side effects.

‘A severe geomagnetic storm includes the potential for aurora to be seen as far south as Alabama and Northern California.’

The last time the Space Weather Prediction Center issued such a Severe Geomagnetic Storm Watch was in January 20, 2005, beginning just before 2 a.m. ET. 

A storm of energetic protons impacted Earth just 15 minutes later, causing a radio burst with a high frequency, indicating the presence of a large number of energetic electrons in very strong magnetic fields. 

'A severe geomagnetic storm includes the potential for aurora to be seen as far south as Alabama and Northern California,' officials wrote Thursday. The aurora ¿ a natural light display in Earth's sky - would be somewhat reminiscent of the recognizable Northern Lights

‘A severe geomagnetic storm includes the potential for aurora to be seen as far south as Alabama and Northern California,’ officials wrote Thursday. The aurora – a natural light display in Earth’s sky – would be somewhat reminiscent of the recognizable Northern Lights

In the blink of an eye, the outburst shocked Earth with the highest dose of radiation measured in five decades, tripping radiation monitors all over the planet within moments. 

‘This flare produced the largest solar radiation signal on the ground in nearly 50 years,’ Richard Mewaldt of the California Institute of Technology said at the time, as other services like the internet were largely spared. 

‘But we were really surprised when we saw how fast the particles reached their peak intensity and arrived at Earth,’ the scientist added.

In that case, the raging proton storm peaked in 15 minutes – though normally, the most intense part of a proton event typically takes two hours or longer to build up, officials said Thursday.

The event, if it occurs, will start as early as noon ET, officials warned – after a G5 storm in 2004 caused power outages in Sweden while damaging power transformers in South Africa.

This time around, the US will likely be affected, officials said. 

SOLAR STORMS PRESENT A CLEAR DANGER TO ASTRONAUTS AND CAN DAMAGE SATELLITES

Solar storms, or solar activity, can be divided into four main components that can have impacts on Earth:  

  • Solar flares: A large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. These flares are made of photons that travel out directly from the flare site. Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the side of the sun facing Earth.  
  • Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s): Large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing through solar wind. These clouds only cause impacts to Earth when they’re aimed at Earth. 
  • High-speed solar wind streams: These come from coronal holes on the sun, which form anywhere on the sun and usually only when they are closer to the solar equator do the winds impact Earth. 
  • Solar energetic particles: High-energy charged particles thought to be released primarily by shocks formed at the front of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud plows through solar wind, solar energetic particles can be produced and because they are charged, they follow the magnetic field lines between the Sun and Earth. Only charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect Earth will have an impact. 

While these may seem dangerous, astronauts are not in immediate danger of these phenomena because of the relatively low orbit of manned missions.

However, they do have to be concerned about cumulative exposure during space walks.

This photo shows the sun's coronal holes in an x-ray image. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections

This photo shows the sun’s coronal holes in an x-ray image. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections

The damage caused by solar storms 

Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost.

The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing Earth’s magnetic field.

Very large flares can even create currents within electricity grids and knock out energy supplies.

When Coronal Mass Ejections strike Earth they cause geomagnetic storms and enhanced aurora.

They can disrupt radio waves, GPS coordinates and overload electrical systems.

A large influx of energy could flow into high voltage power grids and permanently damage transformers.

This could shut off businesses and homes around the world. 

Source: NASA – Solar Storm and Space Weather