Solar storms that cause auroras can create pretty havoc with technology – here’s how

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At the weekend, millions of people around the world were treated to a spectacular display of the aurora borealis and aurora australis, better known as the northern and southern lights. The lights, usually seen in corona-like regions around the Earth’s poles, were being pushed to mid-latitudes by rising activity from the Sun.

The same geomagnetic storms that create the auroras can wreak havoc on our planet’s human infrastructure. These storms, caused by high-energy particles from the Sun hitting our atmosphere, have the potential to knock out electrical grids and satellites. So what have been the impacts of this recent stormy space weather?

Around May 8, an active region of the Sun exploded, spewing a billion-ton cloud of magnetized and electrically charged material known as a coronal mass eruption (CME) toward Earth. This was the first of several CMEs in a row, which later coalesced to form one massive structure.

This crashed into our planet’s magnetosphere, the region of space near Earth that is dominated by the earth’s magnetic field. As subatomic particles from the CME are passed down, the channels of electric current that flow through a part of the atmosphere known as the ionosphere are intensified.

Apart from triggering the solar displays, this can create powerful magnetic fluctuations on the Earth’s surface. As a result, electrical currents can flow through power grids, pipelines and railway lines, which can disrupt normal operations.

The subatomic particles from the CME can damage the solar panels and electronics of the satellites. Saturday, Said Elon Musk that his company SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellites were “under a lot of pressure,” due to the storm, “but holding up so far.”

A series of bright eruptions known as “flares” on the Sun contributed to the disturbance in the ionosphere that poured high-energy radiation across the face of the Earth’s sun. Flare activity is associated with radio blackouts that can disrupt high-frequency radio communications, such as those required by aircraft on transoceanic flights. There are indications that the storm has disrupted transatlantic flights, but these reports are still being assessed.

Shawn Dahl, service coordinator for the Space Weather Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Colorado told US National Public Radio that power grid operators were “working to keep proper, controlled current flowing without interruption” .

He added that some GPS systems had difficulty locking locations and offered incorrect locations. These GPS problems appear to have affected navigation systems in farming equipment in the US. Many tractors use GPS to plant precise rows in a field, to avoid gaps and overlaps. The problems occurred during the height of the planting season in the Midwest and Canada.

Some of this may sound like a Hollywood disaster movie. But, although the GPS problems have greatly affected agriculture, the effects do not seem to have been widespread around the world. For many or most, life seems to have gone on, regardless. Why?

Awareness and preparedness certainly helped. What we experienced was, without a doubt, an unusually strong space weather event. It is early days and scientists will be analyzing the May 2024 storm for years to come. However, there are early signs that last weekend’s geomagnetic storm was the most powerful since the “Halloween storm” of October 2003. Beyond the beautiful lights in the sky, the negative impacts of the 2024 storm are not yet clear. .

At this stage, there does not appear to have been any catastrophic failure, but infrastructure operators will be looking at whether and how their systems have been affected. Behind the scenes, national agencies such as NOAA and the UK Met Office were monitoring the activity, issuing forecasts and alerts to interested parties, and liaising with experts and governments. In response, infrastructure operators have taken measures to ensure continuity of services and to protect their equipment.

Even more storms

However, what we had was not exactly the biggest event of its kind ever seen. That honor goes to the “Carrington Event” in September 1859, in which a giant CME (or probably a pair of CMEs) triggered a massive geomagnetic storm that pushed the aurora borealis as far south as the Caribbean Sea and unleashed powerful currents that in copper. telegraph lines that at least one operator suffered a severe electric shock – although he survived.

By some metrics, the Carrington event was two to three times more powerful than the storm we just witnessed. Such massive events are rare, probably happening once every few hundred years, in contrast to the May 2024 storm which was on a scale seen once every few decades.

Human technology is capable of dealing with relatively powerful space weather events, but modern technologies and infrastructure have never experienced anything like the Carrington event. That’s why researchers strive to better understand space weather and work with agencies and government to predict and mitigate its impact on our society and develop better forecasting tools.

This article from The Conversation is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The conversation

The conversation

Jim Wild is Professor of Space Physics at Lancaster University. He receives research funding from the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council and the Natural Environment Research Council. He is a member of the UK Space Environmental Impacts Expert Group (SEIEG), an independent committee of experts from Academies, Research Institutes, Companies and Agencies. He also provides space weather expertise to Frazer Nash Consulting.

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