How to predict a solar storm? Space weather experts explain

For those who had the opportunity to see the aurora this weekend, it was a great time.

But while the aurora borealis is thrilling and exciting to us, the same coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and geomagnetic storms that make these light shows possible can disrupt some of the technology that is part of our daily lives.

There was a lot of buzz last weekend about other possible impacts when the historic geomagnetic storms reached the extreme G5 category. Companies that operate satellites like SpaceX reported on Sunday (May 12) on X that “all Starlink satellites in orbit weathered the geomagnetic storm and remain healthy” and even government agencies like NOAA shared that their assets were not affected at the moment.

“We are still collecting information about any impact, not only on our satellites, but on many other satellites at the moment,” Dr. Elsayed Talaat, Director of the NOAA. Office of Space Weather Observations at NESDIS, said in an interview with “We were able to avoid and mitigate any disaster because of the warnings and alerts given by the Space Weather Prediction Center sent out.”

Related: Solar flares: What are they and how do they affect Earth?

Like weather forecasting on Earth, space weather forecasts are just as critical ahead of the storm. That’s why NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) continuously shares updates that include alerts, watches and warnings as new information comes in and changes are made to its forecasts.

“We did very well with the beginning of this storm. We saw the various coronal mass ejections, we were out quite close to when they were going to get here. It is 93-million miles from the sun to the Earth so within of five to seven hours, we think is a pretty good forecast ), said

The more information forecasters can provide, the sooner power companies can make the necessary preparations to prevent outages and avoid blackouts and other disruptions. Murtagh also said that part of his job at the SWPC includes making hotline calls to power grid owners and operators across the country 24 hours in advance.

colorful hints of light appear in the night sky

colorful hints of light appear in the night sky

After control at the Department of Energy, power grid operators must continue to assess the vulnerability of their assets to geomagnetic disturbances. When determining their vulnerabilities, they need to have mitigation plans,” Murtagh said. “Part of that includes some engineering solutions like introducing blocking devices to help block that unwanted DC current into the AC network and other activities simply in response to our warnings when they do different things recognizing their vulnerability. We’ve come a long way over the last decade to build that resilience.”

With every geomagnetic storm produced by a CME, there is a threat of anomalies and disruption to our power infrastructure here on Earth as well as satellites, GPS, aviation and spacecraft.

Although the storm on May 10 reached G5 status, we still encountered a bullet in a way. Solar radiation levels were not as high as this one as we have experienced during previous powerful solar events. NOAA study for the space weather storm around Halloween in 2003 showed that it not only strengthened to extreme geomagnetic storm levels (G5) but also to strong to severe levels (S3/S4) on the solar radiation scale.

“We’ve never found these particular storms above a small S2 and that’s also a big question mark in our ability to forecast – why certain large eruptions are so rich in energetic protons, which is a big question for satellites and airlines at fly the high latitude routes for astronauts,” said Murtagh.

“We haven’t seen a lot of S-scale level activity and that’s also one of those mysteries that we don’t really understand and can’t predict.”

image of the sun showing a large bright spot on its bottom rightimage of the sun showing a large bright spot on its bottom right

image of the sun showing a large bright spot on its bottom right

Like weather forecasting, space weather forecasting has limitations as Murtagh noted. Although so much progress has been made in forecasting, it is still not a perfect science and there is much to be learned from each geomagnetic storm that occurs. Scientists were challenged with the latest event as successive rounds of CMEs were released in close proximity to each other causing predicted complications.

“This is what really got us going over the weekend to speculate and try to determine which ones might have arrived and which ones haven’t arrived yet. And when they arrived, we had to decide what kind of effect they would have after the We didn’t have a good sense of what was to come on Saturday and Sunday,” said Murtagh.

“Back to the drawing board somehow; we managed to correct some of it, the important thing was to let everyone know it was coming so they could take action, but according as things have turned out, there is a lot to do.”

All in all, this incident provided important information for those of similar magnitude in the future. In addition, knowing more about CMEs will continue to improve aurora forecasts so we can also progress if it will be visible from our own backyard. So, don’t give up hope just yet.


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“We wanted to understand how much that combined because during the storm, CMEs would arrive and be kind of enveloped in the solar wind rising very high,” said Murtagh. “It was difficult for us to determine which ones were already here and swept over the Earth and which ones had not yet arrived. Also, the last few CMEs were not as ordered by the Earth and the ones before because the sun is rotating so the sunspots are a bit more towards the limbs. Sometimes they can hit you hard and sometimes not I think it’s a combination of the two that we haven’t seen as much at night Sunday.

“There is plenty more activity coming from the sun in the coming months and years as we work our way through solar maximum.”

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