‘Danger behind the beauty’ of auroras as more solar storms could hit Earth

Tourists normally have to pay big bucks and brave cold climates for a chance to see an aurora, but last weekend many people around the world simply had to look up to see these colorful displays dancing across the sky.

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Usually banished to Earth’s poles, the auroras strayed as far as Mexico, southern Europe and South Africa on the evening of May 10, delighting skygazers and filling social media with images of exuberant pinks, greens and purples. shades.

But for those charged with protecting Earth from powerful solar storms like the ones that caused the auroras, there’s a threat lurking beneath the stunning colors.

“We must understand that behind this beauty there is danger,” Quentin Verliep, coordinator of the European Space Agency’s space safety programme, told AFP.

Mike Bettwy of the US Space Weather Prediction Center said that “we are focusing on the more sinister potential consequences” of solar storms, such as taking out power grids and satellites, or exposing astronauts to dangerous levels of radiation.

Massive explosions on the Sun's surface shoot out plasma, radiation, and even magnetic fields at incredibly high speeds, emanating from the solar wind.
Massive explosions on the Sun’s surface shoot out plasma, radiation, and even magnetic fields at incredibly high speeds, emanating from the solar wind. © NASA, AFP

The latest auroras were caused by the most powerful geomagnetic storm since the “Halloween Storms” of October 2003, which caused power outages in Sweden and damaged electricity infrastructure in South Africa.

There appears to be less damage caused by the latest solar storms, although it often takes weeks for satellite companies to reveal problems, Bettwy said.

There were reports that some self-driving farm tractors in the United States stopped working when their GPS guidance systems failed due to the storm, he told AFP.

‘Definitely not over yet’

These strange effects are caused by massive explosions on the Sun’s surface that emit plasma, radiation and even magnetic fields at incredibly high speeds, emanating from the solar wind.

The Northern Lights above mountains in Austria.
The Northern Lights above mountains in Austria. © JFK, APA, AFP

The recent activity comes from a sunspot cluster 17 times the size of Earth that has continued to rage over the past week. On Tuesday it produced the strongest solar flare we have seen in years.

The sunspot has moved towards the edge of the solar disk, so activity is expected to decrease in the short term as the eruptions move away from our planet.

But in about two weeks, the sunspot will rotate again and return its gaze to Earth.

In the meantime, “another sunspot is now coming into view” that could lead to “major activity in the coming days,” Alexi Glover, ESA’s space weather service coordinator, told AFP.

So solar activity is “definitely not over,” she added.

It’s hard to predict how violent these sunspots could be – and whether they could produce more auroras.

A geomagnetic storm lights up the night sky in Utah.
A geomagnetic storm lights up the night sky in Utah. © Blake Benard, Getty Images North America, AFP

But solar activity is only just approaching the peak of its roughly 11-year cycle, so the chance of another major storm is greatest “between now and the end of next year,” Bettwy said.

What threat do solar storms pose?

Geomagnetic storms like the recent one create a magnetic charge of voltage and current, which “essentially overloads” things like satellites and power grids, Bettwy said.

The most famous example came in 1859 during the worst solar storm in history, called the Carrington Event.

In addition to stunning aurora, the storm also sent sparks flying from telegraph stations. The charge coming from the sun was so strong that some telegraphs worked without being connected to a power source.

So what would happen if such a powerful geomagnetic storm were to hit Earth again?

Bettwy said most countries have improved their electricity networks, which should prevent long-term outages like those in Sweden in 2003 or Canada in 1989.

The most powerful solar storm to hit our planet in more than two decades produced blinding auroras in many countries, including Russia.
The most powerful solar storm to hit our planet in more than two decades produced blinding auroras in many countries, including Russia. © Vladimir Nikolaev, AFP

Still, he suggested people carry an emergency kit in case the electricity goes out for a day or two. Fresh water can also help when filter installations go offline.

Astronauts are especially at risk from radiation during extreme solar activity. Those on the International Space Station usually seek the best possible shelter when a severe storm is expected.

Bettwy said a massive solar storm could expose astronauts to an “unhealthy dose” of radiation, but he didn’t think it would be fatal.

Bettwy emphasized that he did not want to “sow fear” and added that radiation could also “penetrate the fuselage” of planes flying near the North Pole.

Airlines sometimes change routes during extreme solar storms to avoid this, he added.

Several upcoming missions are expected to improve the prediction of the Sun’s intense and unpredictable weather, with the aim of giving Earth more time to prepare.

(AFP)


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