'Severe geomagnetic storm' to hit Earth tonight with power and communication networks at risk

A Solar and Heliospheric Observatory image shows Region 486 that unleashed a record flare on the sun November 18, 2003
The surface of the sun -Credit:Getty Images

A severe geomagnetic storm is set to hit Earth, with warnings that power and communication networks could fail. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has issued a Severe (G4) Geomagnetic Storm Watch, the first since January 2005, due to significant solar activity including numerous sunspots and flares.

The space weather event is centred around a huge sunspot cluster known as NOM region 3664, which is 16 times larger than Earth in diameter. This magnetic giant has released several powerful solar flares, causing concern among space weather forecasters.

However, this disruption could provide a spectacle for those in the northern half of the US, who may have the chance to see stunning auroras as a result of the unprecedented event. These auroras might even be visible from Alabama to northern California.

The SWPC has identified at least five Earth-directed coronal mass ejections (CMEs) linked to these flares. They are expected to arrive as early as midday Friday, May 10, 2024, and continue until Sunday, May 12, in what experts are describing as an unusual occurrence.

Coronal mass ejections, which are essentially explosions of plasma and magnetic fields from the sun's corona, can pose a significant risk when they head towards Earth, potentially causing disruption to communications, navigation systems, and satellite operations. The SWPC has issued warnings to operators of these systems to take protective measures, reports the Mirror.

Experts have warned that the impact of such a geomagnetic storm could be extensive. Power systems could face widespread voltage control issues, leading to potential disruptions in the electricity grid.

Spacecraft operations could also be affected, with surface charging and tracking problems expected, requiring corrections for orientation issues.

Additionally, induced pipeline currents could interfere with preventive measures, while HF radio propagation may become inconsistent. Satellite navigation could be degraded for several hours, and low-frequency radio navigation could be disrupted.

Due to the intensity of this space weather event, auroras have been seen as far south as Alabama and northern California in the past.

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The last severe geomagnetic storm, rated G4, took place on March 23, 2024, while the last extreme storm, rated G5, was recorded during the Halloween Storms in October 2003. The latter led to power outages in Sweden and damage to power transformers in South Africa.

The Space Weather Prediction Centre (SWPC), a branch of the National Weather Service, has announced that it will be keeping a close eye on the situation. A Severe (G4) Geomagnetic Storm Watch has been issued for Friday evening, May 10, with the possibility of further solar eruptions potentially prolonging the geomagnetic storm conditions over the weekend.