- An eruption on the sun’s surface caused plasma and charged particles to rush to Earth this week.
- This coronal mass ejection is predicted to reach our planet as a solar storm on Wednesday that could disrupt radio, GPS and power grids.
- There was a chance the aurora borealis was visible from Pennsylvania to Iowa to Oregon, but in the end the northern lights didn’t appear that far south.
- The sun is entering a period of increasing violent activity, so the northern United States is likely to have more opportunities to see the aurora.
- You can find more stories on the Business Insider homepage.
A sunburst this week triggered warnings from the National Weather Service.
The eruption sent plasma and magnetically charged particles known as coronal mass ejection (CME) toward Earth. If these particles hit our atmosphere just right, they could have inundated the planet in a geomagnetic storm that would disrupt power grids, GPS and radio communications, and even affect the orbits of satellites around the earth.
These effects may have spread to the north of the United States, causing the aurora borealis – a reaction between solar particles and the earth’s atmosphere – to creep into regions from Pennsylvania to Iowa to Oregon.
But when the CME arrived on Wednesday, there were no northern lights in these lower states.
The aurora borealis (northern lights) is seen across the sky near Rovaniemi in Lapland, Finland, October 7, 2018.
Alexander Kuznetsov / Reuters
The space weather department of the National Weather Service initially released a watch for a “strong” geomagnetic storm on Thursday, but downgraded the watch to “minor” after the arrival of the CME.
According to Mike Hapgood, a space weather consultant at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK, the CME’s magnetic field was pointing north. It would have to face south to wash through the North Pole opening in Earth’s magnetic field far enough to reach the United States.
“We are unlikely to see much activity and the Aurora will stay further north over Canada,” Hapgood told Business Insider. However, the northern areas of Maine and Michigan can still catch a glimpse of the green lights.
But Illinois and Iowans shouldn’t despair. They may have better ways to see the aurora in the near future.
The Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights, seen from the International Space Station, on June 25, 2017.
That’s because this CME was just a preview of an upcoming period of intense solar activity that could bring more geomagnetic storms and far-reaching aurors. The sun is entering a new 11-year solar cycle, which means its eruptions and flares will become more frequent and violent, and will peak by 2025.
“This is more of a wake-up call that stronger storms could occur in the next few years – and we should make sure we are ready for them,” said Hapgood.
Strong solar storms are fairly common – the NWS estimates that each solar cycle produces about 200 of them – but scientists can’t always predict them that way. This often means that power grids and key radio links remain vulnerable.
NASA is working to better predict space weather
Electric currents from solar storms can flow over the Earth’s pipelines and power lines, overwhelming technologies that humans rely on.
Solar Orbiter captured this image of the Sun as it approached closer than any other spacecraft on May 30, 2020.
Solar Orbiter / EUI Team (ESA & NASA); CSL, IAS, MPs, PMOD / WRC, ROB, UCL / MSSL
In 1989, a flood of particles from the sun turned Quebec’s electricity off for about nine hours. Two more solar storms interrupted emergency communications for a total of 11 hours shortly after Hurricane Irma in 2017. A solar storm may even have interrupted SOS broadcasts from the Titanic when it sank on April 14, 1912.
Spurts of solar activity can also endanger orbit astronauts by disrupting their spaceship or disrupting mission control communications.
Studying the source of charged solar particles could help scientists figure out how to protect both astronauts and Earth’s electrical grid from these unpredictable electrical storms. Two spaceships currently orbiting the sun are doing just that.
An artistic impression of the Solar Orbiter watching an eruption on the sun.
ESA / AOES
In February, NASA and the European Space Agency launched the Solar Orbiter to collect data on eruptions on the sun’s surface. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe also zooms around the sun. It is designed to measure solar flares and track the flow of material from the sun to the earth in real time.
The information these spaceships gather could one day help scientists predict more geomagnetic storms before they occur.
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally released on December 9, 2020 at 7:34 p.m. ET.