Solar storms that “cannibalize” each other will occur over the next four years as the Sun exhibits more extreme activity, scientists predict.
Over the past week, a series of geomagnetic storms hit Earth as the Sun began its new solar cycle, which takes place every 11 years and will peak in 2025.
A series of coronal mass ejections, involving the emission of electrically charged matter and the accompanying magnetic field into space, struck Earth in the past week, following a major solar flare on Halloween.
Occasionally, these ejections can occur so frequently that the later ones travel faster than their predecessors and merge with the slower ones.
“That first CME essentially makes its way through the 93 million miles and almost clears the way for other CMEs to come in behind it,” he detailed. Space Bill Murtagh, program coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC).
“Sometimes we use the term ‘cannibalize’ the one in front,” Murtagh explained.
The NOAA team uses a spacecraft called the Deep Space Climate Observatory (Dscovr) that is located a million miles from Earth in the direction of the Sun. When a CME hits the spacecraft, scientists know that it will pass between 20 or 30 minutes until the storm hits the planet.
CMEs threaten power grids and satellites, but they are generally manageable.
“From this kind of level we’ve had hundreds of examples, so we have a good idea of what it will do to the network,” Murtagh said. “They’re seeing it, they’re feeling it, we’re seeing some of these voltage irregularities … but this level of shock is very manageable.”
However, with this specific type of “cannibal” CME, the results can be much more severe. “We have determined for all practical purposes that our worst scenario for the extreme geomagnetic storm event scenario will be this,” Murtagh said. “It’s just that the CMEs weren’t that big, but that process happened here, where we had two, three different CMEs that came together,” adding that there are “a lot of unknowns in the space weather business.”
At worst, a solar storm can be disastrous enough to send the entire world into an “internet apocalypse.”
In that case, the power lines, cables and satellites that GPS processes could be damaged, and experts say we have no idea how resilient the current internet infrastructure is to heavy solar activity.
“Since CMEs often originate in magnetically active regions close to sunspots, more sunspots will increase the likelihood of a powerful CME. If this estimate is accurate, it will also significantly increase the probability of a large-scale event in this decade, ”explained Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi of the University of California, Irvine and VMware Research.
Massive solar storms like these have struck before, but never at a time when electricity has been so vital.
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In the last century, multiple fires broke out in electricity and telegraph control rooms in various parts of the world, including the United States and the United Kingdom, due to magnetic fields generated on Earth by one of the largest solar storms ever. whipped the planet.
Space weather phenomena like these should be regarded as “warning[s]”according to Dr. Jeffrey Love, a geophysicist in the Geomagnetism Program of the United States Geological Survey.