- A geomagnetic storm warning has been issued after 17 solar flares were detected erupting from a single sun spot, some of them while it was pointing at Earth.
- The US space weather prediction centre said a G3 geomagnetic storm watch is now in effect following what scientists call a “cannibal coronal mass ejection (CME)” being launched towards Earth.
- It comes as astronomers believe we are entering a period of increased solar activity which could peak in 2025.
NASA has observed a number of solar eruptions on the Sun’s surface, which have resulted in coronal mass ejections heading toward Earth.
The solar flares are being emitted by sunspot AR2975, which has been extremely active in the last two days, erupting at least 17 times since March 28. The flares have caused coronal mass ejections (CMEs) to be ejected in multiple directions, with some of the charged particles expected to impact Earth and cause moderate to low geomagnetic storms.
According to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at least two CMEs are on their way to Earth, with a third possibly on the way as well.
Per the SpaceWeather.com, the first CME is expected to arrive on Thursday, March 31, and the second on Friday, April 1. As previously stated, officials anticipate that the Sun blasts will cause G2/G3 geomagnetic storms, which will increase the likelihood of auroras.
Sky watchers at northern latitudes could be treated to a beautiful aurora Wednesday night into early Thursday, after the sun unleashed two large bursts of energy toward Earth. Activity is expected to peak in the early morning Thursday as the strong geomagnetic storm (rated 3 out of 5) reaches Earth’s magnetic field.
On Monday, around 7:28 a.m., one of the larger solar flares occurred. A minor high-frequency radio blackout over Africa occurred at 2 a.m. Eastern time. A coronal mass ejection (CME), or large plume of plasma and magnetic field from the sun, also occurred toward Earth. Such solar magnetic clouds can jostle the Earth’s magnetic field, causing electrical currents in the upper atmosphere and exciting particles to produce auroras.
But the sunspot wasn’t finished yet. Later that day, at 3:23 p.m., it produced another moderately sized solar flare. Eastern. A second, faster CME associated with the flare erupted as well. This CME, which is moving at around 2 million miles per hour (841 km/s), is expected to catch up with the first CME and merge into one — a cannibal CME, according to scientists.
“Because these two have merged together or are merging together, that’s often an indication that the CME will be a bit stronger. It’s more stuff coming,” said Alex Young, a solar astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “Also, it means that there’s a better chance that the magnetic field will disturb the Earth’s magnetic field.”
Young said this CME activity was also accompanied by a “solar tsunami” (also known as an EIT wave, so named for its discovery using the EUV Imaging Telescope), a shock wave that typically indicates an energetic CME. Satellite data show the shock wave propagating across the sun.
The Space Weather Prediction Center also said spacecraft, high-frequency radios and satellite GPS navigation systems may experience intermittent problems. During G3 geomagnetic storms, voltage irregularities may occur on some power systems at high latitudes. This would be most prevalent in the Arctic and Antarctic. Space junk and satellites in low Earth orbit can experience increased drag, and various issues with high-frequency radios and GPS signals can be expected.
Earlier this year, SpaceX confirmed that a geomagnetic storm destroyed the majority of the Starlink satellites it attempted to launch into orbit.
The storm, which was caused by solar activity, warmed and expanded the Earth’s atmosphere.
The denser atmosphere at the satellites’ initial orbital altitude caused atmospheric drag to increase up to 50% higher than SpaceX had seen in previous launches, the company said, resulting in the satellites plummeting back to Earth and burning up on re-entry.
“Impacts to technology from a G3 storm generally remain small,” said the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which monitors space weather.
Fortunately, astronomers do not expect the flare to cause major disruption in the same way that the Carrington Event, the largest solar storm ever recorded, did in 1859.
The Carrington Event produced an aurora visible across the sky, even at latitudes much closer to the equator, and was described as brighter than the light of a full moon in contemporary reports.
It caused telegraph systems across Europe and North America to fail, and a similar storm today could cause trillions of dollars in global damage.