News Karnataka
Tuesday, June 18 2024

Earth Faces Solar Storm: Communication, Power Grids at Risk

Photo Credit : Google

As it continued into the weekend, the strongest solar storm in over 20 years hit Earth, causing breathtaking celestial light displays in the skies from Tasmania to Britain and raising the possibility of interference with satellites and power systems.

The Space Weather Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that shortly after 1600 GMT, the first of multiple coronal mass ejections (CMEs)—expulsions of plasma and magnetic fields from the Sun—occurred.

It was later upgraded to an “extreme” geomagnetic storm — the first since the so-called “Halloween Storms” of October 2003 caused blackouts in Sweden and damaged power infrastructure in South Africa. More CMEs are expected to pummel the planet in the coming days.

Social media lit up with people posting pictures of auroras from northern Europe and Australasia.

“We’ve just woken the kids to go watch the Northern Lights in the back garden! Clearly visible with the naked eye,” Iain Mansfield, a think tanker in Hertford, Britain told AFP.

“Absolutely biblical skies in Tasmania at 4am this morning. I’m leaving today and knew I could not pass up this opportunity,” photographer Sean O’ Riordan posted on X alongside a photo.

Authorities notified satellite operators, airlines and the power grid to take precautionary steps for potential disruptions caused by changes to Earth’s magnetic field.

Unlike solar flares, which travel at the speed of light and reach Earth in around eight minutes, CMEs travel at a more sedate pace, with officials putting the current average at 800 kilometers (500 miles) per second.

They emanated from a massive sunspot cluster that is 17 times wider than our planet. The Sun is approaching the peak of an 11-year cycle that brings heightened activity.

Mathew Owens, a professor of space physics at the University of Reading, told AFP that while the effects would be largely felt over the planet’s northern and southern latitudes, how far they would extend would depend on the storm’s final strength.

“Go outside tonight and look would be my advice because if you see the aurora, it’s quite a spectacular thing,” he added. If people have eclipse glasses, they can also look for the sunspot cluster during the day.

In the United States, this could include places such as Northern California and Alabama, officials said.

NOAA’s Brent Gordon encouraged the public to try to capture the night sky with phone cameras even if they can’t see auroras with their naked eyes.

“Just go out your back door and take a picture with the newer cell phones and you’d be amazed at what you see in that picture versus what you see with your eyes.”

Fluctuating magnetic fields associated with geomagnetic storms induce currents in long wires, including power lines, which can potentially lead to blackouts. Long pipelines can also become electrified, leading to engineering problems.

Spacecraft are also at risk from high doses of radiation, though the atmosphere prevents this from reaching Earth.

NASA has a dedicated team looking into astronaut safety, and can ask astronauts on the International Space Station to move to places within the outpost that are better shielded.

Other species with internal biological compasses, such as pigeons, may also be impacted. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory reports that during geomagnetic storms, pigeon handlers have observed a decrease in the number of birds returning home.

Authorities advised people to prepare for power outages by keeping radios, flashlights, and batteries on hand, among other standard backup plans.

Named after British astronomer Richard Carrington, the Carrington Event—the strongest geomagnetic storm in recorded history—took place in September 1859.

At the time, excessive currents on telegraph lines could shock technicians with electricity and even catch some telegraph equipment on fire.

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