Examining the Impact of Solar Storms on Earth: Understanding Potential Risks and Communication Disruptions

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has issued a rare G4 geomagnetic storm watch, marking the first occurrence of such a storm in nearly two decades.

This storm follows days of solar flares that reportedly propelled bursts of plasma and magnetic fields toward Earth, prompting a watch that could result in dazzling light displays and disruptions in communication due to space events.

Using its Space Weather Scale, NOAA has communicated the severity of the storm to the public. This tool delineates current and anticipated environmental disturbances, including geomagnetic storms, solar radiation storms, and radio blackouts.

The current G4 geomagnetic storm is categorized as “severe,” the second-highest magnitude on the scale, just below G5: “extreme.” The scale also outlines potential effects at each level, as well as the mechanisms and intensity of the physical causes.

Geomagnetic storms can impact three main areas: power systems, spacecraft operations, and other systems such as satellite navigation or radio frequency disruptions.

One of the effects falling under the category of “other systems” is the visibility of the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights. The clarity and visibility of this rare colorful phenomenon depend on the storm’s classification.

Geomagnetic Storms Explained

NOAA describes geomagnetic storms as “major disturbances of Earth’s magnetosphere caused by a highly efficient transfer of energy from the solar wind into the space environment surrounding Earth.”

In simpler terms, these storms are disruptions of Earth’s upper atmosphere, partly caused by solar flares, intense bursts of radiation associated with sunspots.

This particular storm was also triggered by coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which are rapid movements of plasma and magnetic fields from the sun’s corona toward Earth due to solar winds. Storms can last several days but typically fall within a range of 12 to 48 hours.

When Will the Solar Storm Hit the United States?

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center issued the solar storm watch on the night of May 9. However, the “severe” G4 geomagnetic storm is expected to impact Earth from the evening of May 10 and persist through May 12.

A watch for a geomagnetic storm of this magnitude hasn’t been issued by the agency since January 2005. The alert came after “at least five flares were associated with CMEs that appear to be Earth-directed,” according to NOAA’s report.

Will the Solar Storm Affect Earth?

Fortunately, humans have no need for concern with the solar storm watch in effect. Despite its considerable magnitude, harmful radiation from solar flares cannot penetrate Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground.

However, the G4 storm is considered “severe” because it has the potential to cause technological issues and communication disruptions on Earth. Notably, G5 storms, being the maximum magnitude, may have differing effects.

Possible consequences of a G4 storm include power system complications like “widespread voltage control problems,” as noted by NOAA. Additionally, “some protective systems will mistakenly trip out key assets from the grid.”

Spacecraft operations “may experience surface charging and tracking problems,” according to the agency, necessitating corrections for orientation issues. Other disruptions on Earth’s surface can affect satellite and low-frequency radio navigation.

Could the Solar Storm Trigger the Northern Lights?

The solar storms could indeed trigger the Northern Lights. While technically not an Earth-bound effect, humans will be able to witness this stunning display from the planet’s surface.

However, the visibility of the aurora borealis depends on several factors, including location on Earth. Several parts of the United States will have the opportunity to witness “spectacular displays of aurora.”

Typically, the northern lights are best viewed from high northern latitudes during winter in places like Alaska, Canada, and Scandinavia. This storm is predicted to be visible from as far south as Northern California and southern states such as Alabama, according to the NOAA scale.

Related Articles

Back to top button