Geomagnetic storm could disrupt communications and illuminate skies

Some satellite operations may be temporarily affected by magnetic storms, which could create aurora displays in some parts of the world

This image from Nasa’s solar dynamics observatory on Saturday shows a geomagnetic storm caused by a solar flare. AP
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A powerful geomagnetic storm set to strike on Monday could disrupt communications on Earth and in space, and create dazzling light displays in the skies over the US and the UK.

The US-based Space Weather Prediction Centre issued a warning that an “active geomagnetic storm” was under way after massive amounts of charged particles suddenly erupted from the Sun.

The centre said the X1.1 solar flare was unleashed by the Sun on Saturday and was expected to hit the planet on Monday.

X denotes the strongest type of solar flare and is 10 times more powerful than the category before it, with the number representing the intensity of the event.

As of Monday morning, the space weather centre had issued an active warning of a G5 storm, which is the most extreme type of geomagnetic storm.

It said people should not be concerned as the phenomena would affect satellite and radio operators, as well as cause fluctuations on weak power grids.

The storm is also is expected to create an aurora, or northern lights, over parts of the US, including New York, Idaho and Maine.

What is a geomagnetic storm?

Geomagnetic storms are caused by coronal mass ejections (CME) that disrupt space weather.

Enormous amounts of plasma, or charged particles, and magnetic fields are suddenly released by the Sun. The plasma travels into space and can affect planets.

The Sun is expected to hit a peak this year in its 11-year cycle, which is why it is so active.

Dr Ilias Fernini, a professor of applied physics and astronomy at the University of Sharjah, told The National that the storm could hamper communication services on Earth and in space.

“This big solar perturbation will disturb space communications and may put Earth into some radio blackout zones where low radio frequency will be blocked," he said.

“Apparently, these CMEs, as part of space weather, may disturb the electric power industry by affecting some electrical grids and may also affect some space-based communications and navigation systems.

"The vulnerability of modern society will be dramatically increased in these geomagnetic storms.”

These storms pass without any major impact on Earth and usually affect only satellite and radio operators.

But there have been instances in the past when geomagnetic storms affected life on Earth.

In 1989, a destructive solar storm caused electrical blackouts across Quebec for 12 hours, affecting businesses and schools.

The most intense solar storm ever recorded was the Carrington Event of 1859, as it sparked fires at telegraph stations and prevented messages from being sent.

Solar wind, which is a continuous stream of charged particles released by the Sun, is believed to have destroyed Mars's atmosphere, making the planet inhospitable.

Scientists are interested in learning about the Red Planet because it helps to show how Earth could also be affected by solar activity.

Geomagnetic storms help to show the dynamic and complex interactions between solar activity and the Earth's magnetic field.

Updated: March 25, 2024, 8:59 AM