Updated 2:12 pm ET, Thursday, March 8
The Earth’s atmosphere is currently undergoing a geomagnetic storm caused by two strong solar flares and particle blasts that erupted from the Sun late Tuesday night.
But the potential worst-case effects of the storm — including disruption of GPS satellites, high frequency radio communications and power grid overloads — haven’t materialized in any significant way, because the particle blast hitting Earth is doing so at an angle, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“At this time, the net effect has been minimized,” said Joe Kunches, a researcher at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, in a midday press conference with reporters conducted from the agency’s office in Boulder, Colorado.
Kunches said that the particle blast now hitting Earth — called a “coronal mass ejection,” or CME, an eruption of fast-moving, charged radioactive particles from the Sun’s surface that commonly follows solar flares — was recorded first striking Earth’s atmosphere at 5:45 am ET by NASA’s ACE satellite.
Each CME contains its own embedded magnetic field, which disrupts Earth’s own magnetic field to varying degrees upon striking it depending on the intensity of the particle blast and the orientation of its field.
In baseball terms, Kunches likened it to a batter trying to gauge what kind of spin the pitcher would put on the ball.
“We did estimate where the pitch is going and when its going over the plate,” Kunches told reporters, “What you can’t see as a forecaster is the ‘spin on the ball.’”
In this case, the magnetic field of the CME now hitting Earth is oriented more northward, primarily striking Earth’s North Pole and Arctic region but not moving further southward, where there are more people and more sensitive electronic and radio equipment that could get disrupted.
But that could change as the geomagnetic storm continues throughout the day and into early Friday morning. Employing another analogy, Kunches said that the CME was like an expected freight train.
“The freight train has come and is still going by,” Kunches said. “Plasma and magnetic field have yet to strike Earth and could turn more southward.”
However, Kunches said that those industries and agencies most at risk for feeling the disruptive effects of the geomagnetic storm — including airliners, which could suffer radio communications outages in mid-flight, and GPS operators like the military, as well as power grid operators, whose lines are being flooded with increased voltage — were all adequately prepared well in advance of the storm and actually anticipated it to be worse.
“Things are at similar vein today as they were 24 hours ago,” Kunches said, “I wouldn’t imagine any significant GPS impacts currently, but if the storm intensifies, it could be a different story. This is not a terribly strong event, but it is a very interesting event.”
Kunches said that NOAA expected the storm to continue over the next 24 hours and “linger into Friday” and “we stick by that prediction.”
However, after that there could still be more solar flares and CMEs erupting from the same active region on the sun as the two that occurred on Tuesday. That active region, dubbed AR 1429, is anticipated to remain in direct view of the Earth for another five or six days, through next weekend, according to Kunches.
Until then, “further eruptions could be very problematic for us,” Kunches warned.
And even after that, there’s going to be more solar eruptions on the way. The Sun is currently approaching “solar maximum,” a period of intensified activity on its surface corresponding to an increased number of sunspots — dark magnetic bundles — that occurs roughly every 11 years. Scientists expect that the Sun will hit solar maximum in 2013 or 2014, with increased events in the run-up and immediately following.
As for us here on the ground, there’s not much to worry about, except the possibility of missing out on spectacular auroras displays: NOAA currently forecasts the best Northern Lights displays to occur around the Arctic Circle. So, if you’re there, look up in the sky tonight, and take some photos for us.
Chart by Clayton Ashley
Late update: The solar storm has fried the lenses of a European satellite orbiting Venus, Space.com reports, but scientists hope that the glitch is only temporary and that functionality will be restored when the Sun’s solar activity wanes, as it is expected to do in the coming days.