'Get ready!' Solar storm 'active NOW' as direct Earth hit imminent – locations pinpointed

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An artist's impression of space weather

Solar storms battering the Earth’s upper atmosphere are causing the aurora to brighten (Image: Getty Images)

Space weather expert Dr Tamitha Skov tweeted: “Right on Cue: Aurora brightens as the first of the expected solar storms turns on the intensity.

“Substorms are active now and show should be visible where clear and dark skies prevail.

“Norway, Sweden, UK, Northern Europe — get ready.”

She added: “Likely auroral radio propagation possible too.”

The aurora are natural light shows generated when particles from the solar wind excite atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere, making them glow.

When seen in the northern hemisphere, they are known as the aurora borealis, whereas their antipodean counterpart is called the aurora australis

The aurora form curtains of light that follow the geomagnetic field lines — and appear in different colours depending on which atoms are being excited.

The two primary gases in the Earth’s atmosphere are oxygen, which emits a greenish light, and nitrogen, which appears in hues of blue, pink and purple.

Dr Skov explained that this evening’s geomagnetic storm is the first of six flung in the direction of Earth in a “machine-gun fashion”.

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms are the result of a combination of the influences of a coronal mass ejection and so-called coronal hole high speed streams.

One of the most powerful forms of solar storm, a coronal mass ejection (CME), occurs when the Sun belches out a cloud of charged particles and electromagnetic fluctuations. 

Coronal holes, meanwhile — which appear as dark areas in extreme ultraviolet and X-ray images of the Sun — are regions where our star’s plasma is cooler and less dense than that surrounding it thanks to the star’s magnetic field extending out into space as an open field.

This open nature permits the solar wind to escape more readily, resulting in streams of relatively fast moving material that can interact with Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field.

According to NOAA, today’s light show is being caused by Earth connecting with one of these high speed streams.

Forecasters expect that this disturbance to the solar wind field should be large enough to cause a minor geomagnetic storm — one classified as a G1 event.

This is the smallest category in the five-point G-scale used to classify geomagnetic storms.

However, NOAA added: “Geomagnetic responses are likely to escalate to G3 (strong) conditions on 18 August due to the arrival at or near Earth of multiple coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that have departed the Sun since 14 August.

“Despite the numerous CMEs, most are expected to have little to no impact at Earth, however, at least four have potential Earth-directed components.”

However, NOAA added: “Geomagnetic responses are likely to escalate to G3 (strong) conditions on 18 August due to the arrival at or near Earth of multiple coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that have departed the Sun since 14 August.

A CME was responsible for the most powerful geomagnetic storm ever recorded — the so-called “Carrington Event” which occurred in the September of 1859.

The Carrington Event affected telegraph networks across Europe and North America, as well as the recently-lain transatlantic link that connected them.

Currents generated in cables by the space weather event reportedly caused telegraph pylons to spark, operators to receive electric shocks and some lines to fail completely.

Other connections, meanwhile, were found to still operate even once their power had been cut, so strong were the electrical currents induced by the storm.

According to a study presented at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)’s SIGCOMM 2021 conference, a large solar storm like the Carrington Event could have the potential to cripple the Internet for weeks.

Unlike Victorian-era telegraph lines, the fibre optic cables that make up the backbone of the Internet are immune to the electromagnetic fluctuations caused by solar storms.

The same cannot be said, however, for the signal boosters that are dotted along undersea cables in order to maintain connections over long distances.

And being underwater, not only are these long-distance cables more vulnerable to the impacts of space weather, but they are also inherently harder to access for repairs.

Astrophysicists predict that there is a 1.6–12 percent chance a solar storm powerful enough to cause catastrophic disruption to modern society will strike the earth in the next 10 years.

Fortunately, however, we have little to fear from the space weather striking the Earth over the next few days.

NOAA explained: “Impacts to our technology from a G3 storm are usually minimal. 

“However, a G3 storm has the potential to drive the aurora further away from its normal polar residence.

In the US, they noted, “if other factors come together, the aurora might be seen over portions of Pennsylvania, Iowa, to northern Oregon.”

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