Raging Solar Storm Could Bring Northern Lights and Communications Snafus

National Weather Service/YouTube
National Weather Service/YouTube

A huge burst of energy produced by a powerful solar storm could strike the Earth as early as Friday, experts say, potentially bringing the Northern Lights to skies over several states and disrupting communications.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has issued a “very rare” Severe G4 Geomagnetic Storm Watch for Friday through the weekend. It’s the first time the NOAA has issued such a watch in almost 20 years.

How a Solar Storm Could Bring Your Plane Crashing Down

The sun began producing strong solar flares—intense bursts of electromagnetic radiation—on Wednesday, according to the NOAA, associated with a sunspot cluster which is 16 times the diameter of the Earth. The radiation travels to our planet at the speed of light and can cause shortwave radio blackouts, according to Space.com, while coronal mass ejections (CMEs)—eruptions of plasma and magnetic fields—can take days to reach us.

It’s those CMEs that can cause geomagnetic storms when they arrive. According to the NOAA, at least five “earth-directed” CMEs have been observed and are expected to hit as early as Friday and persist over the weekend.

The agency’s space weather scale describes a G4 storm as being capable of causing possible “widespread voltage control problems,” in turn leading to protective systems to “mistakenly trip out key assets from the grid.” Such storms can also lead to satellite navigation being “degraded for hours” and create the potential for breathtaking aurora displays as far south as Alabama.

“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 NOAA said. It added that its Space Weather Prediction Center has therefore “notified the operators of these systems so they can take protective action.”

The agency said it has not issued a G4 Watch since 2005.

Two years earlier, around Halloween in 2003, a series of powerful solar storms slammed into the Earth, creating power outages in Sweden and damaging power transformers in South Africa. Some polar flights also had to be rerouted, while aviation radio communications were disrupted for more than two weeks.

One extreme solar storm known as the Carrington Event, which occurred in 1859, which is often invoked in discussions of how a similarly powerful storm could affect our technologically dependent modern world.

It reportedly produced auroras so bright that people in the northeastern U.S. could read a newspaper by their light alone, with the Northern Lights spotted as far south as Cuba. More alarmingly, there were even reports from telegraph operators that the geomagnetic disturbances caused their equipment to spark and, in some cases, start fires.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.