Solar storms could produce rare aurora displays, disrupting communications on Earth this weekend

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A series of solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the Sun have the potential to create dazzling auroras that could be seen as far south as Alabama and northern California, but could disrupt communications on Earth tonight and into the weekend, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. of management Space Weather Prediction Center.

The center, a division of the National Weather Service, issued a severe geomagnetic storm watch Friday evening. This is the first watch to be released since January 2005.

When the Sun approaches the peak of activity in its 11-year cycle, it is called solar maximumLater this year, researchers observed increasingly intense solar flares erupting from the fiery orb.

Increased solar activity causes auroras that dance around Earth’s poles, known as the northern lights or aurora borealis and the southern lights or aurora australis. When energetic particles from coronal mass ejections reach the Earth’s magnetic field, they interact with gases in the atmosphere and create different colored light in the sky.

The Space Weather Forecast Center has observed several strong flares emitting from a large sunspot on the solar surface since Wednesday. The cluster is 16 times the diameter of the Earth.

Scientists observed at least five coronal mass ejections, or large clouds of ionized gas called plasma, and magnetic fields erupting from the Sun’s outer atmosphere, ejecting from the Sun in the direction of Earth. These significant exposures are expected to arrive around noon on Friday and continue through Sunday.

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According to the center’s forecast, the peak of Earth’s geomagnetic storm activity will be between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. ET on Saturday.

The Center termed it as “an extraordinary event”.

In recent months, solar-driven geomagnetic storms have caused auroras to be seen in rare locations, including southeastern New Mexico, Missouri, North Carolina, and California in the United States, as well as the southeast of England and elsewhere. of the United Kingdom.

Depending on the location, the auroras may not always be visible overhead, but keep an eye on the horizon, experts say, because they can make for a colorful scene there, too.

Alex Gorman/Star Tribune/Getty Images

The aurora borealis can be seen on the northern horizon in the night sky over Wolf Lake in Glovet State Forest, Minnesota in September 2019.

When directed toward Earth, these discharges can occur Geomagnetic stormsor large perturbations of the Earth’s magnetic field.

“Geomagnetic storms can affect near-Earth orbit and infrastructure on the Earth’s surface, disrupting communications, electric power grids, navigation, radio and satellite operations,” the Space Weather Forecast Center said. “(The Center) has informed the operators of these systems so that they can take safety measures.”

Solar storms generated by the Sun can cause radio blackouts and even endanger crewed space missions.

The center warned that additional solar activity could cause geomagnetic storm conditions It will continue until the end of the week.

So far, researchers have observed only three severe geomagnetic storms during the current solar cycle, which began in December 2019, the center said.

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Earlier, a G5, or intense geomagnetic storm, occurred on October 23, resulting in power outages in Sweden and damaged transformers in South Africa, the center said.

About every 11 years, the Sun experiences periods of low and high solar activity, which correlate with the amount of sunspots on its surface. The Sun’s strong and constantly changing magnetic fields drive these dark regions, some of which can reach the size of Earth or larger.

During a solar cycle, the Sun changes from a period of rest to an intense and active period. During solar maximum activity, the Sun’s magnetic poles flip. Then, the sun grows quieter again during minimum sunlight.

Solar power is expected to peak in mid-to-late 2024, but the Sun will be active two years later.

Teams at the Space Weather Prediction Center use data from ground- and space-based observatories, magnetic maps of the solar surface, and ultraviolet observations of the Sun’s outer atmosphere to predict solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and other space weather that could affect Earth.

A solar flare disrupts Earth’s ionosphere, or part of the upper atmosphere, immediately affecting communications and GPS.

Energetic particles emitted by the Sun can disrupt the electronics on board the spacecraft and affect astronauts without proper protection within 20 minutes to several hours.

Material ejected from the Sun during a coronal mass ejection reaches Earth within 30 to 72 hours, causing geomagnetic storms that affect satellites and generate electric currents in the upper atmosphere. Phases.

The storms also affect the flight patterns of commercial aircraft, which are advised to stay away from Earth’s poles due to loss of communications or navigation capabilities during geomagnetic storms.

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Severe storms have occurred before, such as the 1989 Quebec power grid knockdown and the 1859 Carrington event. The latter was the most intense geomagnetic storm ever recorded, causing telegraph stations to spark and catch fire.

If such an event were to occur today, it would cause trillions of dollars worth of damage and could bring down some power grids for a significant amount of time.

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