Our solar system is home to some of the most powerful storms ever observed, be it Jupiter’s great red spot, Neptune’s dark spot, or the dusty Martian storms. However, none of these is even close to the giant solar storm that can erupt from the Sun’s surface. And one of these geomagnetic storms is all set to hit Earth today, on the eve of Halloween, after the Sun blasted out millions of tons of ionized gas from one of five sunspot clusters late on Thursday. So yes, even the universe is planning to make this year’s Halloween spookier than ever. How? Let’s see!
What is a geomagnetic solar storm?
When we look at the Sun, it appears to be a calm sphere lightening the whole world. But in reality, it’s not as calm as it appears to be. It’s a ball of hot plasma where robust nuclear fusion reactions occur, thereby radiating an immense amount of energy.
However, along with emitting energy, our host star also ejects powerful sprays of charged particles, and this phenomenon is what we call Coronal Mass Ejection or a solar storm. The flares of these particles can travel several million km per hour and can take about 13 hours to five days to reach Earth.
Our Sun goes through an 11-year cycle of high and low activity. During these years, the Sun’s magnetic poles take a flip. In 2020, the Sun was at a solar minimum when it entered its 25th cycle. Hence, as the Sun is waking up from its slumber, it’s going to get stormy, and following this, it will witness an enhanced activity in the coming years, which means that the solar storms are going to be at their peak.
Although the Earth’s atmosphere protects us from these particles, solar flares can overwhelm the Earth’s atmosphere if they occur in sufficiently large quantities. In such a case, the charged particles of the solar storm can produce their magnetic fields that can further cause a major disturbance in Earth’s magnetosphere, thereby leading to a geomagnetic storm.
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The geomagnetic storm that is on the verge of hitting us today
As already mentioned above, the Sun is now in a phase where it is beginning to experience enhanced activity. Following this, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured a significant solar flare erupting from the Sun on Thursday. Specifically, the Sun fired off an X1-class solar flare, the most powerful kind of flare that gets erupted from the star.
The flare peaked at 11:35 a.m. EDT (1535 GMT) on Thursday and caused a temporary but strong radio blackout across the sunlit side of Earth-centred South America. The coronal mass ejection from this flare is expected to take two days to reach Earth, which means that it will hit our planet by Saturday or Sunday (Oct. 30-31), which is just in time for Halloween.
How will this solar storm affect us?
To begin with a sense of relief, I would like to state that the harmful radiation from this solar flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to affect humans. However, they can most probably disturb the Earth’s atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel. The charged particles can add energy to the upper atmosphere in the form of heat. This can lead to an increase in the density of the upper atmosphere, thereby causing extra drag on satellites in low-earth orbit.
Moreover, the intensity of the coming flare can drive the aurora further away from their normal polar residence. This means that the aurora might be seen over the far Northeast, to the upper Midwest, and over the state of Washington, thereby putting up an enhanced show of colorful lights for Aurora enthusiasts.
Some powerful solar storms in the history
So far, humanity has witnessed some of the most powerful solar storms in history. The most severe solar storm, known as the Carrington Event, occurred in 1859. This solar storm reached Earth in about 17 hours and caused the compasses to go haywire globally, terribly affecting the telegraph network, and many operators even experienced electric shocks.
Moreover, the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, a pride of polar regions, were seen in Colombia, which falls near the equator. If this isn’t enough to surprise you, let me tell you about another such event. In 1921, again, a solar storm impacted New York telegraph and railroad systems.
However, the solar storm, which is in the news right now, has been rated as G3 on the five-step scale for ranking such events. Thankfully, this is lower than the level where power grid operators should become concerned. Moreover, the impacts to our technology from a G3 storm are generally nominal. Still, it will be a significant event as this solar flare erupted from the Sun belongs to one of the strongest storms of our star’s current weather cycle.
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Editor at ‘The Secrets Of The Universe’, I have completed my Master’s in Physics from India and I am soon going to join Institute of Space Sciences, Barcelona for my doctoral studies on Exoplanets. I love to write about a plethora of topics concerned with planetary sciences, observational astrophysics, quantum mechanics and atomic physics, along with the advancements taking place in the space industry.