A massive coronal mass ejection (CME) exploded off the Sun earlier today, blasting a significant amount of energy towards Earth; this could translate into a very significant geomagnetic storm, one that NASA computer forecast models suggest could become a “severe or extreme” event.
The Earth is already in the middle of a geomagnetic storm and this fresh blast today could make things worse. The Earth is already being smacked by a slow-moving CME that leapt off the Sun last Friday. According to the SWPC, G1-class geomagnetic storm conditions began last night and should last through at least tomorrow night. Based on that, a G1 Geomagnetic Storm Watch was issued. Geomagnetic storms are rated on a 1-5 scale with 1 being minor and 5 being severe.
However, with today’s fresh blast, a G3 or even G4 class geomagnetic storm could be possible, according to forecast model data from NASA. Model simulations suggest that it could impact Earth as soon as tonight or as late as tomorrow night, with the Kp index reaching 8 or 9 which would classify it as a severe to extreme event.
Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) are large expulsions of plasma and magnetic field from the Sun’s corona. They can eject billions of tons of coronal material and carry an embedded magnetic field, frozen in flux, that is stronger than the background solar wind interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) strength. CMEs travel outward from the Sun at various speeds, with some reaching the Earth as quickly as 15-18 hours and others requiring days to arrive. According to the SWPC, CMEs expand in size as they propagate away from the Sun and larger ones can reach a size comprising nearly a quarter of the space between Earth and the Sun by the time it reaches our planet.
One frequent side effect of these geomagnetic storms is the presence of aurora. The probability and location of aurora displays is based on the Kp index of the storm. The K-index, and by extension the Planetary K-index, are used to characterize the magnitude of geomagnetic storms. The SWPC says that Kp is an excellent indicator of disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field and is used by SWPC to decide whether geomagnetic alerts and warnings need to be issued for users who are affected by these disturbances. Beyond signifying how bad a geomagnetic storm’s impact can be felt, the Kp index can also help indicate how low the aurora will be.
The initial NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) called for the ongoing geomagnetic storm, prior to today’s blast, to have a Kp index of 4 or greater. The greater the number, the more vibrant aurora can be; in the Northern Hemisphere, a higher Kp index also means the aurora could establish itself high above the United States in southern locations that don’t ordinarily see the Northern Lights. Should the Kp index become greater than the 4 that was initially forecast, aurora currently predicted to be visible in places like northern Michigan or Maine could travel south: a KP index of 7 or more could make the aurora present in clear skies in Boston, Chicago, and Seattle; a KP index of 9 or more could illuminate the clear night skies of Washington, DC, Saint Louis, Denver, and even Salt Lake City. In past severe geomagnetic storms, the aurora has been visible as far south as Hawaii and the central Caribbean.
While NASA computer model forecasts suggest a severe to extreme event could unfold, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) is being more conservative. SWPC now has upgraded the G1 Geomagnetic Storm Watch to a G2 Geomagnetic Storm Watch, suggesting most impacts will be primarily poleward of 55 degrees Geomagnetic Latitude. In this area, induced currents and power grid fluctuations can occur. High-latitude power systems may experience voltage alarms. Spacecraft and satellite orientation irregularities may occur; increased drag on low Earth-orbit satellites is possible, forcing operators to adjust orbits due to the impact of the storm. High frequency radio propagation can fade at higher latitudes and there could be communications and navigation systems outages due to the blast. In addition to a G2 storm, SWPC also predicts the Kp index will rise to 6. While not nearly as high as NASA’s forecast, a Kp index of that magnitude could produce visible aurora as low as New York to Wisconsin to Washington state.
NASA cautions that while the halo associated with today’s CME is fast, it is visually diffuse; as such, their Kp predicted by the simulation may be higher than is merited for the current situation. NASA has this disclaimer added to their model output: “NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center is the United States Government official source for space weather forecasts. This “Experimental Research Information” consists of preliminary NASA research products and should be interpreted and used accordingly.”
Space weather scientists will continue to sift through data, satellite information, and computer forecast data to refine their geomagnetic storm predictions in the hours ahead. While this geomagnetic storm has the potential to be severe, it is unlikely to be catastrophic.
However, scientists do warn that sooner or later, a catastrophic geomagnetic storm will strike Earth just as it has in the past.
On September 1-2 in 1859, a powerful geomagnetic storm struck Earth during Solar Cycle 10. A CME hit the Earth and induced the largest geomagnetic storm on record. The storm was so intense it created extremely bright, vivid aurora throughout the planet: people in California thought the sun rose early, people in the northeastern U.S. could read a newspaper at night from the aurora’s bright light, and people as far south as Hawaii and south-central Mexico could see the aurora in the sky. This day became known as the “Carrington Event.”
The event severely damaged the limited electrical and communication lines that existed at that time; telegraph systems around the world failed, with some telegraph operators reporting they received electric shocks.
The sun cycles in and out of active periods. One longer solar cycle is known as the Gleissberg cycle; this takes place every 80-100 years. During the Gleissberg cycle, large-scale solar events during solar maxima become four times more likely to occur.
The two most recent solar cycles, from 1996-2008 and 2008-2020, were part of a minimum activity period during the Gleissberg cycle. “In other words, modern technological advancement coincided with a period of weak solar activity and the sun is expected to become more active in the near future,” the paper stated. Because the internet was developed during this minimal activity period, it has never been tested by a period of strong solar activity. And unfortunately for the internet and all those that depend on it, we may be about to begin a period of very strong solar activity.
A paper published last year written by University of California assistant professor Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, entitled “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse”, describes the threats the sun pose to a globe and modern technology dependent on electronics and electricity.
“A recent study from November 2020 suggested that this cycle has the potential to be one of the strongest on record,” the study author stated. “Recent estimates for the number of sunspots at the peak of this cycle are between 210 and 260 (a very high value). In contrast, the previous cycle that ended in 2019 had a peak sunspot number of 116. Since CMEs often originate in magnetically active regions near sunspots, a larger number of sunspots will increase the probability of a powerful CME. If this estimate proves accurate, it will also signi!cantly increase the probability of a large-scale event in this decade.”
CMEs produce variations in the earth’s magnetic field, which in turn induce geoelectric fields on the earth’s conducting surface, such as the land or ocean floor. The paper’s author describes how a CME impacts cables: “These spatiotemporally varying electric fields are responsible for the generation of Geomagnetically Induced Currents (GIC) as high as 100-130 Amps that can flow through any extended ground-based conductive systems such as power grids, networking cables, etc. This electromagnetically induced current enters/exits long-distance conductors from grounded neutral, causing destruction of electrical equipment such as transformers/repeaters and, in turn, large-scale power outages/Internet outages spanning many states or even countries.”
Based on this, power grids, oil and gas pipelines, and networking cables –including those the internet depends on– are the most vulnerable from a strong solar blast. In addition to damaging things on Earth, a strong solar blast could also damage things in space, such as communications satellite. If the blast is strong enough and a geomagnetically induced current is allowed to harm network infrastructure, the internet could be effectively killed until repairs are made. On a global scale, this could take weeks or months; some areas may not ever be able to be restored.
While the exact timing of such a solar blast isn’t known, scientists are fairly confident an internet-killing blast is likely at some point in the future. Worse, it appears the United States is more vulnerable than other countries around the world. “The U.S. is one of the most vulnerable locations with a high risk of disconnection from Europe during extreme solar events,” the study said. “Intracontinental connections in Europe are at a lower risk due to the presence of a large number of shorter land and submarine cables interconnecting the continent.”
To prepare for this event, the paper’s author encourages more redundant cables to be deployed, a smarter shut-down process to be developed, and more data centers deployed and spread out around the world in the event of regional failures. Overall, greater awareness of this threat needs to be publicized so that more stakeholders are aware of the risks and can strategize ways to minimize them.
The entire paper can be read here: https://www.ics.uci.edu/~sabdujyo/papers/sigcomm21-cme.pdf
One organization tasked to tracking such threats is the agency best known for its weather forecasts. While typically known for their forecasts of rain, snow, and wind, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its National Weather Service (NWS) is also responsible for “space weather.” While there are private companies and other agencies that monitor and forecast space weather, the official source for alerts and warnings of the space environment is the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC). The SWPC is located in Boulder, Colorado and is a service center of the NWS, which is part of NOAA. The Space Weather Prediction Center is also one of nine National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) as they monitor current space weather activity 24/7, 365 days a year.
The SWPC issues three day space weather forecasts highlighting risks posed by different unfolding space weather conditions. However, according to the paper’s author, people may only get a 13-hour advance notice of a significant internet-killing blast, which may not be enough time to properly shut-down and protect vital infrastructure around the globe.