A powerful geomagnetic storm could hit Earth today and cause radio blackouts

Auroras are also expected.
Ameya Paleja
cme.jpg
A solar flare.

LV4260/iStock 

A powerful geomagnetic storm could hit Earth today after a series of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) were sent out by the Sun earlier this week. Moderate radio blackouts can also be expected, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said in a press release.

Our Sun is currently in the active phase of its 11-year solar cycle. This stage is characterized by an increase in activity on the solar surface, which is visible through the formation of sunspots. Due to increased magnetic activity, certain solar surface areas do not participate in the convection process. This results in a drop in their temperature and a darker appearance when viewed from telescopes on the Earth.

At times, the disruption of magnetic fields near the sunspots can lead to a sudden release of energy called a solar flare. While solar flares are intense bursts of radiation, at times, highly magnetized particulate matter is also let out, which scientists call a coronal mass ejection (CME).

This is why scientists track these sunspots to predict solar flares and CMEs. Sunspot AR3078, located west of the Sun's central meridian in the southern hemisphere, was relatively active earlier this week and frequently sent out solar flares, including a moderately powerful one on August 16.

The warning of a geomagnetic storm

Earlier this week, the solar scientists at NOAA observed a series of CMEs being let out by the Sun and headed toward the Earth. Since particulate matter takes time to cover the vast distance between the Sun and our planet, scientists can predict when the CME will hit our planet.

Luckily for us, the thick blanket of the atmosphere protects lifeforms from harmful radiation and highly magnetized particles from the Sun. However, spacecraft such as satellites, or even human missions that are placed away from the safety net of the atmosphere, are at risk.

The magnetically charged particles can also cause disruption in the Earth's magnetosphere, which scientists call a geomagnetic storm. Typically, geomagnetic storms are of low intensity and are classified on a scale of G1-G5, with G1 being the least.

However, the series of CMEs sent out earlier this week has increased the risk of geomagnetic storms to G3, late on August 18th. The following day, NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) predicts a relatively less powerful G2-class geomagnetic storm.

What to expect during the geomagnetic storm?

Geomagnetic storms can disrupt not only satellites and communication networks, but also the electric power grid and navigation services. According to the SWPC's webpage for this geomagnetic storm, the impact on this infrastructure is expected to be minimal.

Where the geomagnetic storm might have a visible impact is the driving down south and the formation of auroras. A phenomenon also caused by the interactions of solar winds and the Earth's atmosphere, a moderate-powerful geomagnetic storm could mean that auroras are visible over portions of Pennsylvania, Iowa, and northern Oregon. If you are a resident of these geographies, wish for clear weather and look out for the lights.

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