A powerful solar storm hits the Earth and colors the sky with polar lights Science News


Since Friday evening, a “severe” solar storm has been hitting the Earth, the first of its kind since 2003, and its picturesque polar lights have illuminated the skies of many countries around the world, from Tasmania to France, but it has also raised concerns about its potential impact on electronic networks and communications systems.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) announced that the geomagnetic storm is a level 5 on a 5-degree scale, which is described as “severe.” “GPS, power grids, spacecraft, satellite navigation and other technologies may be affected,” she said.

The agency indicated that the storm was caused by the arrival of a series of coronal mass emissions from the Sun to Earth.

John Dahl of the US Agency’s Space Climate Prediction Center explained during a press conference on Friday that this is “explosions of energetic particles and magnetic fields from the sun.”

The storm is expected to continue through the weekend, with more of these emissions arriving, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Monitoring Agency.

The last such event to reach level five was in October 2003 and was called solar “Halloween storms,” according to NOAA.

That year, power outages were recorded in Sweden, while electrical transformers were damaged in South Africa, according to what the US agency confirmed.

The same source explained that the first “extremely strong” emissions hit the Earth at approximately 16:30 GMT on Friday.

The sun is currently approaching the peak of its activity according to a cycle that repeats every 11 years. These coronal mass ejections, at least seven of which are directed towards Earth, come from a sunspot with a diameter 17 times larger than the Earth’s diameter.

Unlike solar flares, which travel at the speed of light and reach Earth within about 8 minutes, coronal mass ejections travel more slowly, with an average speed of about 800 kilometers per second.

Polar lights sparked by the solar storm in Canada (Anatolia)

Possible disturbances

In addition to their potential impact on electronic systems, these major solar storms cause striking polar lights, sometimes reaching areas farther south than those usually witnessed during the usual periods of the year.

Matthew Owens, professor of space physics at the University of Reading in England, explained that the geographical extent of the appearance of the polar lights will depend on the strength of the eventual solar storm.

“My advice would be go out tonight and look (at the sky) because if you see the polar lights, that will be amazing,” Owens said Friday evening.

Pictures circulated on social media showed polar lights in several areas of the United States and even in London.

Ian Mansfield from Hartford English told Agence France-Presse, “We just woke up the kids so they could see the polar lights in the park!”

For his part, French photographer Mathieu Rivran wrote on Facebook, “Words cannot describe this wonderful scene in the sky tonight. The northern lights, in all their colors that can be seen with the naked eye, were dancing in the sky after a very strong geomagnetic storm.”

In turn, the astrophysicist at the Côte d’Azur Observatory, Eric Lagadec, said on the X platform, “I have the feeling that I am living a historic night in France, which was truly full of solar particles and feelings.”

In the United States, space officials expect that the polar lights will be spotted in areas such as northern California and Alabama.

Brent Gordon of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Monitoring Agency advised residents to take pictures of the sky even if the polar lights are not visible to the naked eye.

For his part, Sean Dahl confirmed that operators of communications satellites and the electrical grid in North America were informed of the storm in advance to take the necessary precautions.

He advised residents to provide batteries or even electric generators, as is the case with any other weather storms.

In turn, Rob Steinberg, a researcher at the Space Climate Prediction Center, confirmed that electrical power operators have worked over the past decade to better protect networks, indicating that the potential impact of the solar storm will be limited to high-voltage lines and not private homes.

He stressed that his agency is coordinating with the US Space Agency (NASA), which is responsible for ensuring the safety of astronauts on the International Space Station who are more exposed to solar emissions and radiation.

The authorities also issued a first-degree radiation warning on a scale of 5, which is a level that does not currently cause concern.

For his part, billionaire Elon Musk, owner of Starlink, a company for satellite internet services, which operates about 5,000 of them in low orbit, confirmed that these satellites are “under a lot of pressure, but they are holding up so far,” in a post on his “X” platform.

The US Civil Aviation Agency confirmed that it “does not expect any significant complications” to navigation as a result of the storm.

However, it indicated that geomagnetic storms may disrupt the operation of high-frequency navigation and broadcasting devices, and that it recommended airlines and pilots to “expect” possible disturbances.

The most powerful solar storm recorded in history dates back to the year 1859 – according to NASA – and was known as the “Carrington Event” when it caused disturbances in telegraph lines.

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