Extreme solar storm hit earth

A massive solar storm rocked the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles this weekend, triggering spectacular auroras in the night sky across a substantial swath of both North America and Europe. Over the last weekend, one of the strongest geomagnetic storms of the millennium was experienced. ‘Extreme’ solar storm triggers Northern Lights as far south as Florida Friday. Skies across the U.S. lit in a spectacular colorful glow not seen in years to decades as massive solar flares slammed into Earth on Friday, triggering “extreme” levels of geomagnetic activity. It was expected to be G4 level, but it turned to be an “extreme” G5 geomagnetic storm. The storm reached “extreme” levels — Category G5 — on Friday and Saturday, enough to wreak havoc on communications equipment and even the power grid, believed to be the strongest storm of its type in over 20 years.. Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground (amount of radiation is pretty insignificant), but periods of intense solar activity can disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm, nervous system, heart rate and blood pressure.

According to the Northern Lights forecast of the Finnish Meteorological Institute, geomagnetic activity will remain higher than normal during the beginning of the week. The solar wind is still fast over the earth, and mass coronal eruptions that probably hit the earth have been emanating from the sunspot region that caused the storm every day. This solar activity involves the release of energy from the sun that travels through space and eventually reaches Earth. Solar radiation storms occur when a large-scale magnetic eruption, often causing a coronal mass ejection and associated solar flare, accelerates charged particles in the solar atmosphere to very high velocities. The most important particles are protons which can get accelerated to large fractions of the speed of light. When that radiation hits the magnetic sphere surrounding the planet, it causes fluctuations in the ionosphere, a layer of the upper atmosphere.

Those fluctuations in the ionosphere can affect communications systems, GPS positioning and electrical power networks.
“Geomagnetic storms can impact infrastructure in near-Earth orbit and on Earth’s surface, potentially disrupting communications, the electric power grid, navigation, radio and satellite operations,” NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center said in a release. “SWPC has notified the operators of these systems so they can take protective action.” Aside from brilliant and widespread displays of the aurora, geomagnetic storms can impact infrastructure in near-Earth orbit and on Earth’s surface, potentially disrupting communications, the electric power grid, navigation, radio and satellite operations, the SWPC says. The huge solar storm is keeping power grid and satellite operators on edge. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there have been measurable effects and impacts from the geomagnetic storm that has been visible as aurora across vast swathes of the Northern Hemisphere. So far though there have been no reports of major damage.

The last time Earth experienced a Level 5 geomagnetic event, there were power outages in Sweden and damaged transformers in South Africa. Every few centuries the Sun blasts Earth with a huge amount of high-energy particles. The largest known geomagnetic storm in history, known as the Carrington Event of 1859, caused telegraph stations to spark and catch fire. If it were to happen today, it would wreak havoc on technology. A solar storm the size of the Carrington Event could knock out the backbone of the Internet.

Those changes can directly affect satellites and other spacecraft in orbit, altering their orientation or potentially knocking out their electronics. Those changes to the ionosphere can also block or degrade radio transmissions trying to pass through the atmosphere to reach satellites. And they can also prevent radio transmissions from satellites reach earth. SpaceX’s Starlink service warned on its website Saturday morning that it was experiencing “degraded service,” though it didn’t give further details. There has been some degradation and loss to communication systems that rely on high-frequency radio waves.

Since GPS satellites depend on signals penetrating the ionosphere, the geomagnetic disturbance scientists are expecting could affect that critical technology used by planes, ocean-going vessels, and in the agriculture and oil and gas industries. The typical effects of the storm are reduced location accuracy or completely cutting out the GPS location service for some time.

Solar storm managed to shut down farm equipment across US and Canada last weekend. And as the New York Times reports, the storm was particularly devastating for farmers in the US and Canada, whose tractors and other equipment broke down in the middle of planting season — a fascinating and rare example of just how fearsome space weather can become despite our planet’s protective shell. Farm equipment company John Deere’s “StarFire” receivers that combine GPS with other sensor data were hit particularly hard. Tractors that rely on GPS and other navigation tech shut down after the Sun’s ferocious storm, with seed-sowing operations grinding to a halt.

The ionosphere changes could affect shortwave radio transmissions used by ships and aircraft, emergency management agencies, the military and even ham radio operators, all of whom rely on the high frequency radio airwaves. Nothing very serious was reported in the news on those services.

Consumer wireless networks rely on different radio frequencies than the high frequency band, so it appears unlikely that the storm will directly affect cellular service. The impact to cell phones this weekend seemed to have been slim to none. As long as the underlying electrical infrastructure that supports wireless networks remains unaffected, the wireless networks work. The GPS features on your phone also typically use a mix of pure GPS and cellular tower-based location tracking, so even if GPS signals are disrupted, phone users may still be able to maintain a rough location fix.

It was expected that the power grid was potentially at risk. Severe space weather can jeopardize power grids, according to NOAA, whose alert this week said to expect “possible widespread voltage control problems” and that “some protective systems may mistakenly trip out key assets from the power grid.” With a G5 storm, complete blackouts and power grid collapses are possible. A blackout of the electrical grid could have cascading effects for communications and other technologies, including cellphones and the data centers that host websites. Redundancy and resiliency are watchwords of all critical infrastructure providers, so many operators have arranged backup power for essential functions.

Here is the mechanism that causes problems to electrical power grid: These solar caused plasma waves hit the Earth’s magnetic field and compress it, like a balloon that you squeeze with your hands. These magnetic field changes lead to the induction of an electric field in the ground. “This electric field causes currents in our high-voltage lines. These unwanted currents have a negative impact on our energy supply.” “Transformers in particular are adversely affected by low-frequency currents generated by changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. That can lead to big problems.” The way the electrical network is built can affect how much those low frequency magnetic fields can affect it and the used protection systems can affect if critical components can be disconnected before major failures. When protection system work correctly, it can cause short outages. Network operators have strategies for how they proceed in the event of an outage in order to restore supply as quickly and safely as possible. The modern electrical power networks management and remote controlling nowadays uses a lot of communications and networking technology, and if those networks do not work well during the solar event, that can cause delays in restoring power when it gets cut out.

There are examples what could happen: In 1989, a space weather event led to a massive blackout in Quebec, Canada for more than nine hours after geomagnetic fluctuations damaged transformers and other important equipment. In October, an extreme geomagnetic storm stronger than the one predicted for this weekend led to power outages in Sweden and damaged power transformers in South Africa, the SWPC said. In Malmö, for example, in 2003, where solar storms caused a large-scale outage.

This time here were some preliminary indications of irregularities in power systems, but no reports of any major damage. Maybe the power companies were well prepared and/or we were lucky.



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