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Solar storm is due to hit Earth TODAY and could cause havoc for power grids

A powerful solar storm is due to hit Earth today and could cause havoc for power grids, weather agencies have warned. 

The UK’s Met Office and the US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have forecasted a coronal mass ejection (CME) – a massive expulsion of plasma from the Sun’s corona (its outermost layer) at around 12pm EST (5pm BST) today. 

Possible effects of the solar storm, caused by the CME, are power grid fluctuations and orientation irregularities for spacecraft in the form of ‘increased drag’ on low-Earth orbiters.  

The aurora – a natural light display in Earth’s sky, also known as the Northern Lights – may also be visible as low as New York in the US and the north of England in the UK. 

A solar or geomagnetic storm is a major disturbance of Earth’s magnetosphere – the area around Earth controlled by the planet’s magnetic field – often caused by CMEs. Pictured, a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun, as captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite on June 17, 2015

Today's solar storm, or geomagnetic storm, is rated 'G2' (on a scale of one to five), so it's considered to be 'moderate', according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Today’s solar storm, or geomagnetic storm, is rated ‘G2’ (on a scale of one to five), so it’s considered to be ‘moderate’, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

WHAT IS A SOLAR STORM? 

A solar or geomagnetic storm is a major disturbance of Earth’s magnetosphere – the area around Earth controlled by our planet’s magnetic field.

A solar storm occurs when there is a very efficient exchange of energy from the solar wind into the space environment surrounding Earth 

Earth’s magnetosphere is created by our magnetic field and protects us from most particles the sun emits. 

But when a CME or high-speed stream arrives at Earth it buffets the magnetosphere.

If the arriving solar magnetic field is directed southward it interacts strongly with the oppositely oriented magnetic field of the Earth. 

The Earth’s magnetic field is then peeled open like an onion allowing energetic solar wind particles to stream down the field lines to hit the atmosphere over the poles.   

Source: NASA 

A solar or geomagnetic storm is a major disturbance of Earth’s magnetosphere – the area around Earth controlled by the planet’s magnetic field – caused by CMEs. 

Today’s solar storm is forecasted at around 12pm ET, or about 5pm BST.

‘Event analysis and model output suggest CME arrival around midday on 11 Oct, with lingering effects persisting into 12 Oct,’ NOAA says on its website.

Today’s solar storm is rated ‘G2’ (on a scale of one to five), so it’s considered to be a ‘moderate’ storm. 

In the UK, the Met Office puts the event anything between G1 and G3, and anywhere between the hours of 10am on Monday and 10am on Tuesday.

The CME will likely cause ‘minor to moderate geomagnetic storms’, the Met Office says, resulting in ‘enhanced auroral activity’. 

‘Minor storms may continue into 12 October, before a fast wind from a coronal hole may arrive, perhaps continuing the rather active period of geomagnetic activity. 

‘Aurora is possible through 11th across much of Scotland, although cloud amounts are increasing, meaning sightings are unlikely. 

‘There is a slight chance of aurora reaching the far north of England and Northern Ireland tonight, but cloud breaks and therefore sightings are more likely in Northern Ireland.’

In the Southern Hemisphere, the Aurora is more likely to be seen at high latitudes – locations nearer the South Pole – although there’s a slight chance of aurora reaching the mid latitudes. 

Aurora borealis in Lapland, Finland, around Levi town. In the north the display is known as the aurora borealis, and in the south it is called the aurora australis

Aurora borealis in Lapland, Finland, around Levi town. In the north the display is known as the aurora borealis, and in the south it is called the aurora australis

Although our Sun gives us life, it also frequently ‘sneezes’, ejecting billions of tonnes of hot plasma into space in colossal blobs of matter threaded with magnetic fields – in other words, CMEs.  

It emits gigantic flares, bursts of powerful electromagnetic radiation – x-rays, gamma rays and radio bursts – accompanied by streams of highly energetic particles.     

These violent solar sneezes sometimes spin outward from the Sun in our direction, delivering radiation, energy and charged particles that distort and disrupt Earth’s protective magnetic field (the magnetosphere) and upper atmosphere.

Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost. The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing the Earth's magnetic field

Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost. The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing the Earth’s magnetic field

A solar eruption rises above the surface of the sun. Pictured is the relative size of Earth. These dramatic storms, caused by coronal mass ejections from the sun, hurtle towards Earth, potentially causing widespread devastation

A solar eruption rises above the surface of the sun. Pictured is the relative size of Earth. These dramatic storms, caused by coronal mass ejections from the sun, hurtle towards Earth, potentially causing widespread devastation

DAMAGE CAUSED BY SOLAR STORMS

Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost. 

The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing the Earth’s magnetic field.

Very large flares can even create currents within electricity grids and knock out energy supplies. 

When coronal mass ejections strike Earth they cause geomagnetic storms and enhanced aurora. 

They can disrupt radio waves, GPS coordinates and overload electrical systems.

A large influx of energy could flow into high voltage power grids and permanently damage transformers.

This could shut off businesses and homes around the world.

Disruption to our magnetic field creates solar storms that can affect satellites in orbit, navigation systems, terrestrial power grids and data and communication networks.

‘Harmful space weather has affected Earth before, but as we become increasingly reliant on systems and technologies vulnerable to the Sun’s outbursts, future solar impacts could be even more disruptive,’ says the European Space Agency (ESA). 

When a solar storm heads our way, some of the energy and small particles can travel down the magnetic field lines at the north and south poles into Earth’s atmosphere.

There, the particles interact with gases in our atmosphere resulting in beautiful displays of light in the sky – the aurora, or Northern Lights. Oxygen gives off green and red light, while nitrogen glows blue and purple. 

The aurora can be seen near the poles of both the northern and southern hemispheres. In the north the display is known as the aurora borealis, and in the south it is called the aurora australis.                 

Solar storms aren’t dangerous to humans on Earth’s surface, but they can cause interference with power grids and GPS signals.  

In 1859, a massive geomagnetic super-storm known as the Carrington event sent powerful CMEs toward Earth, disrupting communications on the ground.

If such an event were to happen in today’s world, the effects would be catastrophic.          

A study published earlier this year by a University of California Irvine scientist found the internet could be crippled for weeks in the wake of a severe solar storm, due to vulnerabilities in world’s massive network of submarine communications cables.  

The electromagnetic fluctuations caused by intense solar storms cannot directly harm the fibre optic cables that make up the backbone of the internet.

However, they do have the potential to take out the signal boosters dotted along undersea cables that are necessary to maintain connections over large distances. 

According to astrophysicists, the likelihood of solar storm capable of causing catastrophic disruption occurring in the next 10 years is between 1.6–12 per cent.   

SOLAR STORMS PRESENT A CLEAR DANGER TO ASTRONAUTS AND CAN DAMAGE SATELLITES

Solar storms, or solar activity, can be divided into four main components that can have impacts on Earth:  

  • Solar flares: A large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. These flares are made of photons that travel out directly from the flare site. Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the side of the sun facing Earth.  
  • Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s): Large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing through solar wind. These clouds only cause impacts to Earth when they’re aimed at Earth. 
  • High-speed solar wind streams: These come from coronal holes on the sun, which form anywhere on the sun and usually only when they are closer to the solar equator do the winds impact Earth. 
  • Solar energetic particles: High-energy charged particles thought to be released primarily by shocks formed at the front of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud plows through solar wind, solar energetic particles can be produced and because they are charged, they follow the magnetic field lines between the Sun and Earth. Only charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect Earth will have an impact. 

While these may seem dangerous, astronauts are not in immediate danger of these phenomena because of the relatively low orbit of manned missions.

However, they do have to be concerned about cumulative exposure during space walks.

This photo shows the sun's coronal holes in an x-ray image. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections

This photo shows the sun’s coronal holes in an x-ray image. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections

The damage caused by solar storms 

Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost.

The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing Earth’s magnetic field.

Very large flares can even create currents within electricity grids and knock out energy supplies.

When Coronal Mass Ejections strike Earth they cause geomagnetic storms and enhanced aurora.

They can disrupt radio waves, GPS coordinates and overload electrical systems.

A large influx of energy could flow into high voltage power grids and permanently damage transformers.

This could shut off businesses and homes around the world. 

Source: NASA – Solar Storm and Space Weather 

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