Earth Struck By Severe Solar Storm, Sparking Aurora Activity In Tonight’s Sky

Earth Struck By Severe Solar Storm, Sparking Aurora Activity In Tonight’s Sky

Earth is being struck with strong geomagnetic storm activity after a coronal mass ejection was blurted out by the Sun over the past weekend. It’s a big one, but authorities say the risk to the public is minimal. It could also be a great opportunity to spot some aurora if you live along the appropriate latitude.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center issued an alert saying that a significant coronal mass ejection occurred on March 23. Disturbances were forecasted to occur from late March 24 through to March 25 when the solar flare reached Earth after its 15- to 18-hour journey from the Sun. 

On March 24, when the wave of activity first hit, the NOAA released another announcement saying that geomagnetic storming had reached severe (G4) levels, adding that “infrastructure operators have been notified to take action to mitigate any possible impacts.”

This level of solar activity might cause some disruption for high-frequency radio signals used by aviation, maritime, and military communications, although most low-frequency radio signals won’t be impacted. While there is a “slight risk” for some power cuts in the power grid, any disruptions are expected to be pretty short-term.

An aurora forecast from the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center for Sunday March 24 (left) and Monday March 25 (right)

An aurora forecast from the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center for Sunday March 24 (left) and Monday March 25 (right).

Image credit: NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center

The good news is that intense solar activity can increase the chances of seeing aurora in the night sky. As per the NOAA’s forecast, large parts of Canada and Alaska will have a high likelihood of seeing aurora borealis on the night of Monday, March 25, while some northern US states might also be lucky enough to catch a slight glimpse.  

The UK’s Met Office has suggested that some aurora activity may also be seen in Scotland and northern England.

Northern lights and southern lights are the result of charged high energy particles from the solar winds clashing with gas molecules in the magnetic field of the Earth, causing them to emit colorful swirls of light.

The upper atmosphere of the Sun is constantly emitting solar wind. Flares occur when these charged particles have been pent up by the intense magnetic fields on the Sun, then suddenly become released in a rupture of energy. Despite the Sun being 149 million kilometers (93 million miles) away from Earth, this burst can still affect our planet.

There’s no need to panic this time around. That said, geomagnetic solar storms do have the potential to cause catastrophic damage.

The most powerful known flare, known as the Carrington Event, unfolded in 1859. Along with causing extremely bright auroras to beam across the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, major disruptions to the electromagnetic field caused telegraph systems to crash in many parts of the world. Some telegraph stations even burst into flames.

In today’s world of satellite communications and prolific electrical systems, a solar storm of this size would be devastating. It’s estimated that damages in the US alone would likely be $1-2 trillion in the first year and full recovery could take up to a decade or so. 

A small taste of this potential disaster came in 1989 when extreme solar storms struck Earth, causing a nine-hour blackout at Hydro-Québec’s electricity transmission system in Canada. Millions of people in the region lost power for over 12 hours. 

Another prominent lesson came during the Cold War when a solar storm almost led Earth into an all-out nuclear conflict. On May 23, 1967, radar and radio communications in Earth’s Northern Hemisphere became jammed, leading the US to believe they had been sabotaged by the USSR. Assuming an attack was imminent, the US Air Force prepared their aircraft for war. Fortunately, early efforts to monitor the Sun’s activity managed to show that it was simply a misunderstanding. 

Scientists believe that the Earth is getting close to solar maximum, set to lead to an increase in such solar activity. The question is: will we be ready for another massive solar flare? The short answer to this big question is no, not really.

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