Updated 2:17 pm ET, Friday, March 9, 2012
The geomagnetic storm caused by the Sun that’s been battering Earth’s atmosphere since Thursday morning has picked up in strength and there’s more on the way, according to updates from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Friday.
The increased strength of the storm, up to a G3 from a G1 on a scale of 1 to 5, is due to a change in direction of the magnetic field of a shower of radioactive particles coming from the Sun following two large solar flares on Tuesday night. The particle shower is known as a coronal mass ejection (CME).
This CME’s magnetic field was originally oriented northward around the mostly uninhabited regions of Arctic Circe, and thus the effects were fairly limited, but is now pointing further south and hitting the atmosphere over larger, more populous parts of the Northern Hemisphere.
On top of that, NOAA reported yet another solar flare erupting late on Thursday night, sending another particle shower, or CME, in our direction, although the flare was much weaker than the ones that occurred on Tuesday.
All of that means, at the very least, is more fantastic aurora sightings for those in the upper Northern Hemisphere and a slightly increased risk of radio blackouts, GPS disruption and power grid overloads. That said, NOAA and NASA have continually said that they are keeping all of those affected industries — such as airliners and the U.S. military — well informed of the changes and that all parties have been preparing accordingly, so there are unlikely to be any issues.
Late update: NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center scientists held a press conference on Friday at 1:30 pm ET to discuss the current condition of the storm, the latest impacts and the forecast for the coming days.
NOAA said that the storm had waned to a G2 level and was now tapering off and would likely be over by the end of the day. However, the agency said that it expected that the CME that was launched from the Sun following the flare on Thursday night was still headed straight for Earth and was expected to hit early Sunday morning, March 11.
Although the flare that precipitated that particle shower was weaker, the angle of the magnetic field is once again the key issue, and scientists would not be surprised if it reached a G3 level storm again.
That said, NOAA space weather forecasters aren’t particularly worried about that possibility either.
“That’s well below what it would need to be to cause damage to the power grid,” one scientist on the call said.
Indeed, it would take a geomagnetic storm of G5, and a markedly intense one at that, in order to cause physical damage to say, a transformer, due to the sudden influx of electric voltage.
Also, airliners have been keeping flights well clear of the North Pole and Arctic region in order to avoid any disruptions to high frequency radio communications.
However, NOAA’s scientists aren’t ruling out the possibility that the Sun could belch out yet another flare, and an even stronger one tham what occurred on Thursday. They said that there is a 40 percent chance of an “X-class” flare, the strongest type, of occurring over the weekend, and an even greater chance of a more moderate “R-class” flare erupting during that time as well. The chance for these flares precipitating CMEs that could affect earth remains high until the active region of the Sun that’s been birthing them rotates out of view, which is expected to occur over the next week.