A geomagnetic storm impacted Earth Tuesday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center issued a G3 (serious) alert, warning of increased activity amongst the stars.
The center issued the alert earlier on Tuesday, but a G2 (moderate) geomagnetic storm watch remained in effect Wednesday.
Although, space weather probably won’t hit you directly -- they can disrupt satellites, power grids and radio communications.
We reached out to Dr. Eric Adamson a research scientist at the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center about space weather, solar flares, geomagnetic storms and the impact they can have on our lives.
Here are his email responses:
Are solar flares an annual event? If not, how often do they occur?
Solar flares are not an annual event, nor is there anything special about the month of October as far as solar activity is concerned. Solar flares occur when magnetic fields on the sun reconfigure and, as a result, magnetic energy is converted into electromagnetic radiation and the energization of particles. The occurrence of these flaring events is thus completely independent of Earth's orbit around the sun. The frequency of occurrence for flares varies throughout the 11-year solar cycle from something on the order of one per week to multiple flares per day, increasing with solar activity. The frequency of occurrence of solar flares is superficially similar to that of earthquakes, with small flares occurring far more frequently than larger, more energetic ones.
What is being done to prepare, track or predict these storms?
Space weather is very much an active area of research and while it is possible to accurately forecast the impacts of some of these events, there remains much work to be done. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, Colorado is focused on the prediction and mitigation of such threats. SWPC monitors current space weather conditions and, by coupling these observations with numerical models, generates predictive forecasts of such hazardous conditions in order to inform operational decisions within numerous communities including Aviation, Radio Communication, Electric Power, Satellites, and Emergency management.
Can solar flares and these storms have a bigger, global impact on our technology-dependent lives? What would be the impact?
Absolutely! Solar flares are only one among many solar phenomena with tremendous potential for detrimental impacts on modern civilization. As already noted, solar flares produce large amounts of radiation and energetic particles which can modify the ionosphere, thus inhibiting satellite communications, and resulting in hazardous conditions for spacecraft, high latitude aircraft, as well as humans in space. As solar plasma leaves the sun and fills interplanetary space to generate what we call the solar wind, it carries with it signatures of various solar features/processes which affect the Earth as it encounters them in its orbit. These effects include the disruption of satellite communications such as GPS (impacting both location and timing - particularly relevant to financial transactions) as well as terrestrial communications (radio blackouts), realization of hazardous conditions for aircraft personnel in high-latitude regions (enhanced radiation levels) and in near-Earth space for both spacecraft and humans (high-energy particles), and generate harmful terrestrial currents in pipelines and power grids with the potential for devastating widespread failures. Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) present the most significant potential for devastating impacts at Earth. If these immense clouds of magnetized plasma erupt toward Earth and collide with our protective magnetic shield (magnetosphere) they compress it, leaving high-altitude satellites unprotected and causing vast disturbances (geomagnetic storms) throughout the ionosphere and Earth.
Many of the systems affected by these disturbances are so fundamental to our daily lives (production of clean water, electronic financial transactions, obtaining fuel, navigation) that the impacts can be cascading and surprisingly pervasive. Yet, such considerations are not limited to our daily lives, but reach also into national security and global stability.
What is the impact geomagnetic storms can have on where you can view the Northern Lights?
Good question. It's not all doom and gloom! These processes which have such serious impacts on us can also produce an awe inspiring overhead display. The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, also appear in the southern hemisphere as the Southern Lights, or Aurora Australis. They are typically observed near the polar regions due to the Earth's intrinsic magnetic field structure which approximates that of a typical (though very large) bar magnet buried deep inside the globe. As the solar wind plasma impinges upon the dayside of this magnetic field, it compresses it closer to the Earth's surface and stretches out the nightside magnetic field into a tail configuration. This tadpole-like structure is the Earth's Magnetosphere. When high-speed structures (particularly Coronal Mass Ejections) within the solar wind collide with the magnetosphere, they further compress the Earth's magnetic field, forcing the polar magnetic field lines equatorward and energizing particles in the tail region. These particles are trapped on the magnetic field lines, but are free to move along them and thus are funneled toward Earth's polar regions where they collide with atmospheric particles generating the Aurora. Thus, more energetic geomagnetic storms produce aurora further equatorward. For the Carrington Event of 1859 (largest event on record), there are reports of aurora all the way down into the Caribbean Sea!
This type of activity sure does create a beautiful scene in our skies.
Living under the Northern Lights pic.twitter.com/fcnf4GvCjx— Gautam Trivedi (@Gotham3) October 25, 2016
If you want to keep up-to-date with the current space forecast, visit www.swpc.noaa.gov.