'Cannibal' solar storm set to brighten British skies with Northern Lights

·Contributor
·3-min read
Illustration of a coronal mass ejection (CME) emanating from the Sun. These events are powerful releases of solar charged particles (plasma) and magnetic field, travelling on the solar wind. When a CME hits Earth, it can cause a geomagnetic storm which disrupts the planet s magnetosphere, our radio transmissions and electrical power lines. They can damage artificial satellites and cause long-lasting power outages. Humans in orbit are also very vulnerable to these events, whose high-energy particles are not shield by typical spacecraft.
A coronal mass ejection (CME) emanating from the Sun. (Getty)

Is Earth about to be hit with a "solar storm horror" and "cannibal" blasts that will trigger radiation storms, as some tabloid outlets have been reporting?

Sort of, is the answer, with multiple coronal mass ejections (CMEs) on the Sun heading towards Earth, but it's really not anything to worry about.

Strong aurora – or Northern Lights – might be visible in the UK, and there might be some disruption to GPS and amateur radio over the next couple of days.

The Met Office said: "The auroral oval is likely to become enhanced on August 17 due to the combined effects of coronal hole fast wind and CME influences.

"Aurora could be visible as far south as northern England and in places of similar latitude, during the 17 and into the 18."

Read more: What is a geomagnetic storm?

The "cannibal" part refers to when one coronal mass ejection is overtaken and "eaten up" by another faster-moving one.

People in the north of Britain might be able to see Northern Lights as particles from the Sun hit the Earth's magnetic field.

The Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), part of the United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has issued a geomagnetic storm warning for August 17-19, with a possible "strong" geomagnetic storm on Thursday.

The SWPC said: "Geomagnetic responses are likely to escalate to G3 (strong) conditions on August 18 due to the arrival at or near Earth of multiple coronal mass ejections that have departed the Sun since August 14.

"Despite the numerous CMEs, most are expected to have little to no impact at Earth, however, at least four have potential Earth-directed components."

Read more: A 1988 warning about climate change was mostly right

The effects on Earth are likely to be very mild, however.

Space weather expert Dr Tamitha Skov said: "The next five machine-gun solar storms to hit begins on the 18, according to NOAA/SWPC predictions.

"Expect sporadic aurora down to mid-latitudes through August 20. Disruptions to amateur radio expected on Earth's nightside. GPS reception issues at dawn, dusk & near aurora."

CMEs are large clouds of solar plasma and magnetic fields released into space after a solar eruption. Stretching over millions of miles, they can cause Northern Lights when they hit Earth's atmosphere.

Solar storms are ranked from G1 to G5, with stronger storms having the potential to cause radio blackouts.

G5 storms only occur roughly four times per 11-year solar cycle, and can cause problems with power grids and satellites.

In 1859, a massive geomagnetic super-storm known as the Carrington event sent powerful coronal mass ejections toward Earth, disrupting communications on the ground.

If such an event were to happen in today's world, the effects would be catastrophic.

It destroyed telegraph lines, and lit up the skies so brightly people could read at night.

A Lloyds study in 2013 predicted that the effects on our wired society would be far, far worse – costing at least £1.67 trillion, and devastating transport, communication, finance and even food supplies due to the lack of refrigeration.

Watch: Here's how solar storms can cause problems for the power grid