Unprecedented Solar Event Triggers Rare Severe Geomagnetic Storm Watch After Nearly 20 Years

By Lydia Amazouz Published on May 10, 2024 11:53
Unprecedented Solar Event Triggers Rare Severe Geomagnetic Storm Watch After Nearly 20 Years

A major G4 geomagnetic storm may form on Friday, prompting NOAA authorities to issue a storm watch for the first time in nearly 20 years. The alert comes after several days of solar activity, which appears to have launched multiple plasma and magnetic field explosions towards Earth.

What is a Geomagnetic Storm?

A solar or geomagnetic storm is an important disturbance in Earth's magnetosphere, which is regulated by our planet's magnetic field.

A solar storm happens when there is a particularly efficient interchange of energy from the solar wind to the space environment surrounding Earth.

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Our magnetic field creates Earth's magnetosphere, which protects us from the majority of the particles emitted by the sun.

However, when a CME or high-speed stream hits Earth, it disrupts the magnetosphere.

If the incoming solar magnetic field is directed southern, it interacts strongly with the Earth's magnetic field, which is oppositely oriented.

The Earth's magnetic field then peels away like an onion, allowing intense solar wind particles to flow down the field lines and strike the atmosphere near the poles.

NOAA Warns of Impending G4 Geomagnetic Storm as Massive Sunspot AR3664 Emerges

G4s are the second strongest type of geomagnetic storm and have the potential to create widespread voltage control issues. According to NOAA, they can also cause certain protection systems to "trip out key assets from the grid," in addition to spacecraft orientation concerns. Aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, may be observed as far south as Alabama and northern California.

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"If geomagnetic storms were hurricanes,'severe' would be a category 4," SpaceWeather.com states.

In a press release issued Thursday, NOAA stated that the most recent series of solar events began on May 8, when a big cluster of sunspots caused "several moderate to strong solar flares." According to NASA, solar flares are radiation bursts that are among the greatest explosive occurrences in the solar system. According to NOAA, the area of recent flares is 16 times the diameter of Earth, and additional solar activity is likely.

That sunspot is so large that you may be able to view it with your own eyes, using your solar eclipse glasses. The location is known as AR3664.

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According to Space.com, it stretches approximately 124,000 miles across and is one of the "largest and most active sunspots seen this solar cycle."

There have also been a number of coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which are plasma and magnetic field explosions that originate in the sun's corona, the outermost region of its atmosphere. At least five CMEs appear to be heading towards Earth and might reach as early as midday on Friday, lasting until Sunday, according to the agency. "This is an unusual event," NOAA declared.

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"Geomagnetic storms can impact infrastructure in near-Earth orbit and on Earth's surface, potentially disrupting communications, the electric power grid, navigation, radio and satellite operations," NOAA stated. "[The Space Weather Prediction Center] has notified the operators of these systems so they can take protective action."

NOAA pointed out that this is the first storm watch issued for a G4 since January 2005. Every solar cycle produces an average of 100 strong geomagnetic storms, but only three have been seen in the most current cycle, which started in December 2019.
The most recent happened on March 23. The latest G5 or extreme geomagnetic storm occurred in October 2003, causing power outages in Sweden and damaging transformers in South Africa.

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An editor specializing in astronomy and space industry, passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the universe and the technological advances that propel space exploration.

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