A mysterious shock wave in a gust of solar wind sent a barrage of high-speed material shattering through Earth’s magnetic field, opening a crack in the magnetosphere. The plasma barrage could lead to a geomagnetic storm today (December 19), according to spaceweather.com.
The origins of the shock wave are not exactly known, but scientists believe it may have come from a coronal mass ejection launched by sunspot AR3165, a bubbly region on the surface of the sun that triggered a burst of at least eight solar flares on Dec. 14, causing a brief radio blackout over the Atlantic Ocean.
Sunspots are areas on the surface of the sun where powerful magnetic fields, created by the flow of electrical charges, knots in folds before suddenly breaking. The resulting release of energy triggers bursts of radiation called solar flares, or plumes of solar material called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Once launched, CMEs travel at speeds of millions of miles per hour, sweeping up charged particles from the solar wind to form a giant combined wavefront that (if directed toward Earth) can unleash storms. geomagnetic.
Related: An ancient solar storm shattered Earth at the wrong time in the solar cycle – and scientists are worried
Geomagnetic storms occur when energetic solar debris (mainly made up of electrons, protons and alpha particles) is absorbed by, and then compresses, Earth’s magnetic field. Solar particles pass through the atmosphere near the poles where Earth’s protective magnetic field is weakest and agitate oxygen and nitrogen molecules – causing them to release energy in the form of light to form auroras colored such as northern Lights.
Storms can also create fissures in the magnetosphere that stay open for hours, allowing some solar material to pass through and disrupt satellites, radio communications, and power systems.
Fortunately, today’s potential storm, which is expected to be G-1 class, will be fairly weak. This can cause minor fluctuations in power grids and impair certain functions of satellites, including those of mobile devices and GPS systems. It could also cause an aurora to appear far south like Michigan and Maine.
However, more extreme geomagnetic storms can have much more severe effects. They can not only distort our planet’s magnetic field powerfully enough to send satellites falling to earthbut can disrupt electrical systems and even cripple the internet.
The coming storm is just the latest in a series of solar attacks launched at Earth as the sun enters the most active phase of its roughly 11-year solar cycle.
Astronomers have known since 1775 that solar activity rises and falls in cycles, but recently the sun has been more active than expected, with nearly double the sunspot appearances predicted by the Sun. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Scientists predict that the sun’s activity will increase steadily over the next few years, reaching a global maximum in 2025 before declining again.
The largest solar storm in recent history was the Carrington event of 1859, which released about the same energy as 10 billion 1-megaton atomic bombs. After smashing into Earth, the powerful stream of solar particles fried telegraph systems around the world and caused auroras to appear brighter than full moon light as far south as the Caribbean.
If a similar event were to occur today, scientists warn it would cause billions of dollars in damage, trigger widespread blackouts and put thousands of lives at risk. A previous solar storm in 1989 released a billion-ton gas plume that caused a blackout across the Canadian province of Quebec, NASA reported.
But that may not even scratch the surface of what our star is capable of throwing at us. Scientists are also investigating the cause of a series of sudden and colossal spikes in radiation levels recorded in the rings of ancient trees throughout Earth’s history. A leading theory is that the spikes could come from solar storms 80 times more powerful than the Carrington event, but scientists have yet to rule out another potentially unknown cosmic source.
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