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The huge solar storm is keeping power grid and satellite operators on edge

The solar flare as captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on May 9, 2024. The flare has triggered a severe geomagnetic storm watch for the first time in nearly 20 years.
The solar flare as captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on May 9, 2024. The flare has triggered a severe geomagnetic storm watch for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Planet Earth is about to get rocked by the biggest solar storm in decades.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is warning that a series of solar flares will slam into the Earth over the next few hours and days, potentially disrupting communications and navigation, triggering power outages, and damaging satellites.

The most powerful wave of charged particles is expected to hit Earth's atmosphere later tonight. NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center says that it may induce auroras visible as far south as Northern California and Alabama.

The source of the solar storm is a cluster of sunspots on the sun's surface that is 16 times the diameter of the earth. The spots are filled with tangled magnetic fields that can act as slingshots, throwing huge quantities of charged particles towards our planet. These events, known as Coronal Mass Ejections, become more common during the peak of the Sun's 11-year solar cycle.

Usually, they miss the Earth, but this time, NOAA says several are headed directly towards our planet.

"We have high confidence that a series of coronal mass ejections ... are directed right towards Earth," says Shawn Dahl, service coordinator for the Space Weather Prediction Center.

The first wave of particles is already reaching the Earth. Scientists believe the intensity of the storm could grow in coming hours.

Dahl says the first and largest shockwave of particles should arrive sometime this evening U.S. Eastern time. That will likely trigger spectacular auroras at northern latitudes.

While they expect the storm to be large, there's still a lot of uncertainty about what the other effects could be, Dahl says.

"I wouldn't want to speculate on that," Dahl says. "However, severe levels are pretty extraordinary."

Shocking problems

The most disruptive solar storm ever recorded came in 1859. Known as the "Carrington Event," it generated shimmering auroras that were visible as far south as Mexico and Hawaii. It also fried telegraph systems throughout Europe and North America.

While this geomagnetic storm will not be as strong, the world has grown more dependent on electronics and electrical systems. Depending on the orientation of the storm's magnetic field it could induce unexpected electrical currents in long-distance power lines — those currents could cause safety systems to flip, triggering temporary power outages in some areas.

The storm is also likely to disrupt the ionosphere, a section of Earth's atmosphere filled with charged particles. Some long-distance radio transmissions use the ionosphere to "bounce" signals around the globe, and those signals will likely be disrupted. The particles may also refract and otherwise scramble signals from the global positioning system, according to Rob Steenburgh, a space scientist with NOAA. Those effects can linger for a few days after the storm.

Steenburgh says it's unclear just how bad the disruptions will be. While we are more dependent than ever on GPS, there are also more satellites in orbit. Moreover, the anomalies from the storm are constantly shifting through the ionosphere like ripples in a pool. "Outages, with any luck, should not be prolonged," Steenburgh says.

The radiation from the storm could have other undesirable effects. At high altitudes, it could damage satellites, while at low altitudes, it's likely to increase atmospheric drag, causing some satellites to sink toward the Earth.

The International Space Station lies within Earth's magnetosphere, so its astronauts should be mostly protected, Steenburgh says. NASA did not immediately provide details on what, if any, actions its astronauts would take.

Do look up

While this storm will undoubtedly keep satellite operators and utilities busy over the next few days, individuals don't really need to do much to get ready.

"As far as what the general public should be doing, hopefully they're not having to do anything," says Dahl. The largest problem could be a brief blackout, so keep some flashlights and a radio handy, he says.

And don't forget to go outside and look up, adds Steenburgh. This event could create auroras that are visible much further south than usual. A faint aurora can be detected by a modern cell phone camera, he adds, so even if you can't see it with your eyes, try taking a photo of the sky.

The aurora "is really the gift from space weather," he says.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
Willem Marx
[Copyright 2024 NPR]