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Earth Bracing for Massive Solar Storm: Potential for Blackouts, Auroras, and More

May 31, 2024
solar polar

A potent solar storm is on its way to Earth, and could cause radio blackouts and dazzling displays of the aurora borealis (northern lights).

Sunspot AR3664, which previously produced a significant solar flare leading to the most intense auroras in two decades, is still active. According to Nasa’s spaceweather.com, the latest storm originating from sunspot AR3664 on May 27 was a class X2.8 event, making it one of the most intense solar phenomena in recent years.

Nasa describes X-class solar flares as “giant explosions on the sun that send energy, light, and high-speed particles into space”.

The US scientific and regulatory agency National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that Earth has already experienced shortwave radio interruptions due to the solar storm. 

The influence of coronal mass ejection (CME) is anticipated to affect Earth between late May 31 and early June 1. NOAA forecasters have indicated the possibility of G2-class geomagnetic storms on May 31, caused by a CME propelled into space by a recent X-flare. This CME is expected to graze Earth’s magnetic field, leading to geomagnetic disturbances.

However, the forecast remains uncertain as NOAA predicts a significant impact, while Nasa models suggest the CME might narrowly miss Earth.

NOAA further confirmed in its forecast that “G1-G2 (Minor-Moderate) geomagnetic storming is likely to commence by late May 31 and continue into June 1 due to flanking CME effects from the X1.4 flare and subsequent CME eruption of May 29.”

This intense burst of solar radiation caused a deep shortwave radio blackout across the Americas, affecting ham radio operators who likely experienced signal loss at frequencies below 30 MHz for 60 to 90 minutes following the flare’s onset.

Geomagnetic storms, like the potential G2-class event forecasted, can have significant effects on Earth. The upcoming storm may provide an opportunity for skywatchers to witness spectacular auroras, particularly in regions closer to the poles. However, operators of communication and navigation systems need to prepare for possible disruptions.

What is coronal mass ejection (CME)?

According to NOAA experts, a CME is an eruption of solar material, which when it arrives at Earth, creates a geomagnetic storm. CMEs are among the most potent forms of solar storms. They occur when a large volume of the Sun’s corona—a hot, electrically charged gas known as plasma—is ejected into space at high speeds. These ejections can travel millions of miles per hour and can carry up to a billion tons of plasma.

These storms result from interactions between CMEs and Earth’s magnetic field, leading to disturbances that can impact satellite operations, communication systems, and navigation technologies. Moreover, they can enhance auroras, making them visible at lower latitudes than usual.

What is a solar storm?

Solar storms and CMEs are two powerful phenomena originating from the Sun, capable of causing significant disruptions on Earth. 

A solar storm is a disturbance on the Sun that can release large amounts of energy into space. It encompasses several solar activities, including solar flares and CMEs. Solar flares are sudden flashes of increased brightness on the Sun, while CMEs are massive bursts of solar wind and magnetic fields rising above the solar corona or being released into space.

What are the disruptions caused by solar storms?

One of the most significant concerns is the impact on power grids. Geomagnetic storms can induce electric currents in power lines, potentially damaging transformers and causing widespread power outages. 

Additionally, satellites orbiting Earth are also vulnerable. Geomagnetic storms can disrupt satellite communications, affect GPS accuracy, and even cause satellite failures. This has implications for navigation systems, aviation, and various forms of communication.

Meanwhile, high-frequency radio communications, essential for aviation and maritime operations, can also be severely affected. During intense geomagnetic storms, radio signals can become unreliable, posing risks for aircraft and ships.

For astronauts on space missions, solar storms are highly dangerous as they are exposed to higher levels of radiation during solar storms.

How do geomagnetic storms impact the auroras?

Geomagnetic storms can enhance the auroras — natural light displays predominantly seen in high-latitude regions, known as the Northern and Southern Lights. While these displays are beautiful, they signify the intense energy and radiation impacting the upper atmosphere.

Earlier this month, a crimson glow lit up the dark sky in parts of Ladakh in a rare stable auroral red arc event at the Hanle Dark Sky Reserve in the high Himalayas due to the strong solar magnetic storms launched towards Earth.

The solar storms from the AR13664 region of the sun produced several high energy solar flares, some of which travelled towards Earth at a speed of 800 km/second, scientists at the Centre of Excellence in Space Sciences in India (CESSI), Kolkata, said.

Given the potential severity of geomagnetic storms, space weather forecasting has become an essential field of study. Agencies like Nasa and NOAA closely monitor solar activity to provide warnings. Mitigation strategies include reinforcing power grids, shielding satellites, and ensuring robust communication systems to withstand solar events.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by The Kashmir Monitor staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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