Northern Lights auroras linked to 'damaging' electrical effects in new research

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-Credit: (Image: No credit)

The Northern Lights is known for its stunning, colourful sky displays, but new research suggests that these beautiful auroras could actually be harmful.

Auroras are recognizable as brilliant streaks of purples, greens and other colours that occasionally light up the skies. They are caused by "head-on" impacts to the planet's magnetic field - and it turns out that this could be damaging to critical infrastructure.

Scientists have found that interplanetary shocks hitting Earth's magnetic field cause more intense ground-level electrical currents, posing threats to various conduits of electricity like pipelines and underwater cables.

For millennia, auroras have captivated humans, weaving themselves into myths and omens, yet it's only in this era of reliance on electrical technology that their potential destructive force is fully realized. In a rare occurrence, The Northern Lights were seen across the UK in places they wouldn't usually be visible due to light conditions, including more populated areas of Scotland.

Published in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences, recent findings reveal how the phenomena responsible for creating the mesmerizing auroras are also behind potentially damaging currents that could wreak havoc on electrically conducting structures such as pipelines.

Northern Lights display
The phenomenon could be cause damage to important infrastructure -Credit:SWNS

The research highlights the importance of the angle at which these interplanetary shocks hit Earth - understanding this can help predict severe space weather events and protect vital systems.

Dr Denny Oliveira from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland, lead author of the study, explained: "Auroras and geomagnetically induced currents are caused by similar space weather drivers."

He further elaborated: "The aurora is a visual warning that indicates that electric currents in space can generate these geomagnetically induced currents on the ground."

Additionally, he noted: "The auroral region can greatly expand during severe geomagnetic storms."

"Usually, its southernmost boundary is around latitudes of 70 degrees, but during extreme events it can go down to 40 degrees or even further, which certainly occurred during the May 2024 storm - the most severe storm in the past two decades."

Dr Oliveira explained that auroras are caused by two processes: either particles ejected from the sun reach Earth's magnetic field and cause a geomagnetic storm, or interplanetary shocks compress Earth's magnetic field.

Northern Lights over a field
Scotland is no stranger to the celestial aurora displays -Credit:SWNS

He also mentioned that these shocks generate geomagnetically induced currents, which can damage infrastructure that conducts electricity. The scientist warned that more powerful interplanetary shocks mean more powerful currents and auroras - but frequent, less powerful shocks could also do damage.

Dr Oliveira recalled: "Arguably, the most intense deleterious effects on power infrastructure occurred in March 1989 following a severe geomagnetic storm."

"The Hydro-Quebec system in Canada was shut down for nearly nine hours, leaving millions of people with no electricity. But weaker, more frequent events such as interplanetary shocks can pose threats to ground conductors over time.

"Our work shows that considerable geoelectric currents occur quite frequently after shocks, and they deserve attention."

He concluded by saying that shocks which hit the Earth head-on, rather than at an angle, are thought to induce stronger geomagnetically induced currents, because they compress the magnetic field more.

Researchers delved into how geomagnetically induced currents are influenced by shocks at varying angles and times of day. They cross-referenced a database of interplanetary shocks with readings of geomagnetically induced currents from a natural gas pipeline in Mantsala, Finland, which is typically in the auroral region during active periods.

To determine the properties of the shocks, such as angle and speed, they utilised interplanetary magnetic field and solar wind data.

The shocks were categorised into three groups: highly inclined shocks, moderately inclined shocks, and nearly frontal shocks. The researchers discovered that more frontal shocks result in higher peaks in geomagnetically induced currents immediately after the shock and during the subsequent sub-storm.

Particularly intense peaks occurred around magnetic midnight, when the north pole would have been between the sun and Mantsala. Localised substorms at the time also cause "striking" auroral brightening.

Dr Oliveira stated: "Moderate currents occur shortly after the perturbation impact when Mantsala is around dusk local time, whereas more intense currents occur around midnight local time."

As the angles of the shocks can be predicted up to two hours before impact, the research team suggests that this information could allow protections to be set in place for electricity grids and other vulnerable infrastructure before the strongest and most head-on shocks strike.

Dr Oliveira suggested safeguarding measures for power infrastructure, remarking: "One thing power infrastructure operators could do to safeguard their equipment is to manage a few specific electric circuits when a shock alert is issued."

"This would prevent geomagnetically induced currents reducing the lifetime of the equipment."

However, Dr Oliveira's research team found no strong link between how the angle of a shock affects the timing and intensity of induced currents. He observed that this may be due to a need for more current recordings at different latitudes for thorough investigation.

Expanding on data limitations, he said: "Current data was collected only at a particular location, namely the Mantsala natural gas pipeline system."

Dr Oliveira highlighted the significance of the Mantsala site but pointed out its insufficiency for a global overview: "Although Mantsala is at a critical location, it does not provide a worldwide picture."

He also mentioned gaps in the dataset which affected their study: "In addition, the Mantsala data is missing several days in the period investigated, which forced us to discard many events in our shock database."

Concluding with a call to the industry, Dr Oliveira expressed: "It would be nice to have worldwide power all companies make their data accessible to scientists for studies."

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