The Earth’s magnetic field has a crack and solar flares could get through

This exposes us to more geomagnetic storms.
Ameya Paleja
Sun and Earth
Sun and Earth

Elen11/iStock 

Mysterious shockwaves sent from the Sun have cracked open a hole in the Earth's magnetic field, LiveScience reported. The unexpected shockwave accompanied a gust of solar wind that grazed the Earth's atmosphere recently.

Solar winds are streams of highly charged particles released by the upper atmosphere of the Sun, often accompanying an intense outburst of magnetic energy. As the Sun undergoes changes during its 11-year solar cycle, magnetic flux increases in certain areas, which inhibits the convection process. As a result, the surface temperature reduces considerably and the area appears darker when observed from the Earth. Scientists refer to this as a sunspot.

The trapped energies in a sunspot can be released in an intense eruption which is called a solar flare. When the eruption consists of only radiation, it is called a solar flare. It can also consist of charged particles from the solar surface which is referred to as a coronal mass ejection (CME). When this travels outwardly from the Sun, it is referred to as solar winds and becomes responsible for space weather.

Buzzing sunspot AR3165

For centuries, scientists have been looking at the sun to predict space weather and the sunspots are a major marker of the intensity of activity. As the Sun approaches the peak of its 11-year solar cycle, the number of sunspots have been observed to increase in number as well as activity.

The next solar cycle peak is expected in 2025 and activity has been picking up in the past few months. Last week, the sunspot AR3165 sent out eight solar flares, each belonging to Class M, a medium-intensity categorization of solar flares. Any increased intensity could have resulted in the flares being classified as Class X flares, the highest intensity known to man.

Inhabitants of our planet are protected from the harmful effects of solar winds by the blanket of atmosphere around the planet. The highly energized particulates do interact with the molecules in the Earth's atmosphere, compressing the Earth's magnetic field. This is called a geomagnetic storm.

Scientists suspect that highly energized particles that came from the CMEs released by the sunspot AR3165 cracked open the Earth's magnetosphere, which puts us at the receiving end of solar material.

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How bad can it get?

Particles from the CMEs are powerful enough to disrupt satellites and create radio blackouts as they interfere with the signals in the atmosphere. Depending on the intensity of these particles, geomagnetic storms are classified in classes G1 to G5. Most geomagnetic storms experienced on the planet belong to G1-the weakest of the classifications.

As the solar activity increases, the intensity of solar flares and CMEs is also expected to increase, resulting in stronger geomagnetic storms. At higher intensities, a geomagnetic storm can cause disruptions in energy infrastructure and collapse electrical grids.

The world we live in today is highly dependent on satellites and a continuous supply of electricity. A powerful geomagnetic storm could lead to trillions of dollars lost as satellites stop operating and the power supply is interrupted.

The biggest such event occurred in 1859, called the Carrington Event, where telegraph systems around the world stopped working. Geomagnetic storms of lesser intensities produce beautiful auroras that we can admire in the night sky.