Geomagnetic storm hits Earth today; Aurora possible tonight

Activity on the Sun has unleashed a G1-class Geomagnetic Storm on Earth today;  G2 conditions could also be achieved.  Image: NOAA SWPC
Activity on the Sun has unleashed a G1-class Geomagnetic Storm on Earth today; G2 conditions could also be achieved. Image: NOAA SWPC

A G1-class geomagnetic storm is hitting Earth today as impacts from a solar flare and coronal mass ejection (CME) become entangled with Earth’s magnetosphere. Yesterday, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SPWC) issued a G1 Geomagnetic Storm Watch for Earth for today. In a statement, the SWPC said: “The CME associated with the M3/1n flare (R1-Minor radio blackout) that occurred (on June 13) is likely to skirt Earth’s magnetosphere at about the same time a positive polarity. The coronal hole is expected to impact the Earth. The combined effects will likely produce G1-Minor storms, with the possibility of G2-Moderate storm levels if conditions occur simultaneously.”

In fact, G1 conditions are being observed on Earth today. According to the SWPC, geomagnetic storm conditions were first observed at 10:59 am ET today. In the latest SWPC update, they say the impact area will be primarily poleward of 60 degrees geomagnetic latitude. In this region, weak fluctuations of the power grid on Earth can occur. In space, a minor impact on satellite operations is possible. Elsewhere, Mother Nature may light up skies farther south than usual; the aurora could be visible at high latitudes throughout the tier north of the United States, such as northern Michigan and Maine.

This illustration provides a rough guide to where the northern lights (aurora) may appear based on the Kp index;  the higher that number, the more the southern aurora appears.  Image: NOAA SWPC
This illustration provides a rough guide to where the northern lights (aurora) may appear based on the Kp index; the higher that number, the more the southern aurora appears. Image: NOAA SWPC

The aurora may be visible farther south/north than the line that runs across the northern United States through Michigan and Maine. The Kp index helps define where the aurora might be seen. SWPC scientists currently believe a Kp of 5 will be reached in today’s event, but if a higher Kp is observed, it could send the aurora further south. As an example, a Kp of 8 could make the aurora visible in light pollution-free skies as far south as suburban Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston. If the Kp were lower, the aurora would move north, bringing a nighttime light show to parts of Canada free of light pollution.

Graphic showing NOAA space weather scales for geomagnetic storms.  Image: NOAA
Graphic showing NOAA space weather scales for geomagnetic storms. Image: NOAA

According to the SWPC, potentially dangerous geoelectric fields can be induced during geomagnetic storms. These geomagnetic storms are a form of space weather driven by enhanced currents in the Earth’s magnetosphere and ionosphere and are observed at ground level as a time-varying magnetic field. As is well known from Faraday’s law, a time-varying magnetic field induces currents along natural and artificial conducting paths by means of an induced electric field. When currents are induced in artificial conductors, unexpected and sometimes problematic effects can occur in the operation of the affected equipment.

The Sun is constantly churning up material and magnetic fields that create an ever-changing landscape of features that last from milliseconds to days.  NASA developed this infographic to illustrate some of the more common features that can be seen on the Sun. Image: NASA/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith
The Sun is constantly churning up material and magnetic fields that create an ever-changing landscape of features that last from milliseconds to days. NASA developed this infographic to illustrate some of the most common features that can be seen on the Sun.
Image: NASA/Mary Pat Hrybyk-Keith

The Northern Lights could come brilliantly to life on Labor Day as a solar wind is forecast to impact Earth.
The Northern Lights could brilliantly come to life in places farther south than usual during the geomagnetic storm.

NOAA forecasters analyze a variety of solar data from spacecraft to determine what impacts a geomagnetic storm could produce. If Earth is experiencing the effects of a coronal hole and a coronal mass ejection is forecast to impact Earth, the combined effects could result in a more significant impact and more intense geomagnetic storm. Analysis of data from the DSCOVER and ACE satellite is one way forecasters can tell when enhanced solar wind from a coronal hole is about to reach Earth. Some things they look for in the data to determine when the enhanced solar wind reaches Earth:
• Increases the speed of the solar wind
• Temperature increases
• Decreases particle density
• Increases the strength of the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF)

While these solar events can help light up the sky with stunning auroras, they can also cause considerable damage to electronics, power grids, and satellite and radio communications.

A solar flare as seen by the SOHO spacecraft on July 24, 1999, with Earth inset to give an idea of ​​the scale of the outburst.  Image: ESA/SOHO/EIT
A solar flare as seen by the SOHO spacecraft on July 24, 1999, with Earth inset to give an idea of ​​the scale of the outburst. Image: ESA/SOHO/EIT

The 1859 incident, which occurred on September 1 and 2, 1859, is also known as the “Carrington Event”. This event developed when a powerful geomagnetic storm hit Earth during Solar Cycle 10. A CME hit Earth and induced the largest geomagnetic storm on record. The storm was so intense that it created an extremely bright and vivid aurora across the planet: people in California thought the sun rose early, people in the northeastern US and south-central Mexico could see the aurora in the darling.

The event severely damaged the limited power and communication lines that existed at the time; Telegraph systems around the world failed, with some telegraph operators reporting receiving electric shocks.

Artist's rendering of the Parker Solar Probe in space.  Image: NASA
An artist’s rendering of the Parker Solar Probe in space, one of the assets scientists use to better understand solar activity and its impacts on Earth. Image: NASA

A June 2013 study by Lloyd’s of London and Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) in the US showed that if the Carrington event were to occur in modern times, damage to the US could exceed 2 .6 billion dollars, approximately 15% of the country’s annual GDP.

While known for its weather forecasts, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its National Weather Service (NWS) are also responsible for “space weather.” While there are private companies and other agencies that monitor and forecast space weather, the official source for space environment watches and warnings is the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC). The SWPC is located in Boulder, Colorado and is a service center for the NWS, which is part of NOAA. The Center for Space Weather Prediction is also one of nine National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) as they monitor current space weather activity 24/7/365.

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