A solar geomagnetic storm is heading for Earth, threatening communications

It is possible that in the coming days, auroras will become visible in such unusual places as Australia, Scotland, southern Sweden, or the northern United States. The United States meteorological service `NWS-NOAA warned on Monday of a geomagnetic storm heading to Earth.

What is a geomagnetic storm?

A ‘geomagnetic storm’ or ‘solar storm’ is a disturbance of the Earth’s magnetic field that arises from an explosion on the Sun’s surface. The explosion releases magnetic energy that has been accumulating in the atmosphere of the star. To put the size of these explosions in perspective, it is essential to understand that one of them is equivalent to millions of hydrogen bombs detonating at the same time. Solar flares produce a sharp increase of energy-charged particles, which travel through space at a speed of between 300 and 1,000 kilometers per second.

Xóchitl Blanco Cano, a researcher at the Department of Space Sciences of the Institute of Geophysics of Mexico, explains it like this:

“Let’s think that the solar wind (stream of particles emitted by the sun) is a river, and above it, a water bubble forms with different properties, which would be the result of the explosions.”

If the Earth is in the path of these coronal mass ejections, it can take 15 to 72 hours for the particles to reach the Earth’s surface. Under normal conditions, this ‘solar wind’ collides with the Earth’s electromagnetic field, which would deflect electromagnetic energy towards the poles. When this phenomenon becomes visible, we know it as the northern lights (northern hemisphere) and southern lights (southern hemisphere).

 

When these radiations are powerful, the magnetosphere cannot deflect the radiations towards the poles, and the phenomenon moves towards areas closer to the “parallel 0º” or “equator.” Auroras may be visible in places as remote as Australia, Scotland, southern Sweden, or the United States’ northern states in the coming days.

How can it affect us?

But this – perhaps – is the most benign consequence that we could see in the next few days. A solar storm could cause damage to spacecraft electronics, power grid surges (which could cause transformer fires), loss of the GPS signal, interference in radio signals, (…) All this could generate difficulties for air navigation, damage to terrestrial cables, and poor connectivity in submarine damage.

In other circumstances – if the solar storm were extreme – the total energy and communication network could be left without service. Still, the forecasts do not point to something like this happening.

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