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First ‘extreme’ solar storm in 20 years hits Earth

New York, 10 May 2024, (GNP): The initial of multiple coronal mass ejections (CMEs) – releases of plasma and magnetic fields from the Sun – occurred shortly after 1600 GMT, as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

The event was subsequently classified as an “extreme” geomagnetic storm, marking the first occurrence since the “Halloween Storms” of October 2003, which resulted in power outages in Sweden and infrastructure damage in South Africa. Additional coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are anticipated to impact Earth in the upcoming days.

Social media saw a surge in posts featuring images of auroras captured in northern Europe and Australasia.

We’ve just woken the kids to go watch the Northern Lights in the back garden! Clearly visible with the naked eye,” Iain Mansfield in Hertford, England, told AFP. That sense of wonder was shared in Australia’s island state of Tasmania.

“Absolutely biblical skies in Tasmania at 4:00am this morning. I’m leaving today and knew I could not pass up this opportunity,” photographer Sean O’Riordan posted on social media platform X alongside a photo.

Authorities issued warnings to satellite operators, airlines, and power grid operators, advising them to implement precautionary measures due to potential disruptions resulting from alterations in Earth’s magnetic field.

Elon Musk, whose Starlink satellite internet service operates around 5,000 satellites in low Earth orbit, described the solar storm as the “biggest in a long time.” “Starlink satellites are under a lot of pressure, but holding up so far,” Musk shared on his X platform.

Unlike solar flares, which reach Earth at the speed of light in approximately eight minutes, coronal mass ejections (CMEs) travel at a slower pace, with officials estimating the current average speed at 800 kilometers per second.

These CMEs originated from a massive sunspot cluster, measuring 17 times wider than our planet. The Sun is nearing the peak of an 11-year cycle, resulting in heightened activity.

Go outside tonight and look

Mathew Owens, a space physics professor at the University of Reading, informed AFP that the extent of the effects felt across Earth’s northern and southern latitudes would hinge on the eventual intensity of the storm.

“Go outside tonight and look would be my advice because if you see the aurora, it’s quite a spectacular thing,” he said. People with eclipse glasses can also look for the sunspot cluster during the day.

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In the United States, areas potentially affected by this could encompass regions like Northern California and Alabama, according to officials. Brent Gordon from NOAA encouraged the public to attempt capturing the night sky with their phone cameras, even if they couldn’t see auroras with their naked eyes.

“Just go out your back door and take a picture with the newer cell phones and you’d be amazed at what you see in that picture versus what you see with your eyes.”

Spacecraft and pigeons

The fluctuating magnetic fields linked with geomagnetic storms can induce currents in lengthy wires, such as power lines, posing a risk of blackouts. Similarly, long pipelines may become electrified, resulting in engineering challenges.

Spacecraft are also vulnerable to high levels of radiation during such events, although Earth’s atmosphere acts as a protective barrier against this radiation.

NASA has a specialized team focused on ensuring astronaut safety. They have the ability to instruct astronauts aboard the International Space Station to relocate to areas within the outpost that offer better shielding from radiation.

After a particularly intense solar flare peak, the US Space Weather Prediction Center warned that users of high-frequency radio signals might encounter temporary disruptions or complete loss of signal on much of the sunlit side of Earth.

Even animals with internal biological compasses, such as pigeons, could be impacted. Pigeon handlers have observed a decrease in birds returning home during geomagnetic storms, as reported by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Officials emphasized the importance of preparedness for power outages, recommending that people have essential items like flashlights, batteries, and radios readily available.

The most severe geomagnetic storm on record, dubbed the Carrington Event after British astronomer Richard Carrington, occurred in September 1859. Excessive currents on telegraph lines during that event resulted in electrical shocks to technicians and ignited some telegraph equipment.