When we think of sun spots and stronger geomagnetic storms, we tend to think of the impacts as the brilliant displays of the Northern Lights. But what is really going on here? Sun spots are dark spots on the sun that are several thousand degrees colder than the surrounding sun surface, and caused by local areas of intense magnetic activity. Much like a thunderstorm exploding upwards on a hot/humid afternoon, the sun can violently release this built up magnetic activity into space, known as a coronal mass ejection (or CME for short). The solar wind carries this burst of highly energized particles out through space at over 300 miles PER SECOND!! If they are directed toward earth there can be many impacts, arriving several hours to more than a day after the solar eruption.
As the highly electrically charge particles interact with the very upper levels of our atmosphere and the earth's magnetic field, we can see vibrant displays of the northern/southern lights, known as the Aurora Borealis (or Aurora Australis). However, there are many negative impacts from a strong geomagnetic storm, ranging from radio blackouts, satellite interruptions, electrical grid problems, and increased radiation to aircraft at high altitudes flying across the northern latitudes. The NWS Space Prediction Center ranks these potential geomagnetic storms based on expected intensity, and that scale is linked at the bottom of this page.
So what's the big deal? Well, a strong solar eruption was observed yesterday and the CME was directed toward earth. Although, the Aurora Borealis might be observed tonight this far south (a fairly rare event), unfortunately, it looks like we'll be cloudy. One would likely have to travel to northern Iowa or Minnesota for a clear view.
Potential Impacts from a G3 (Strong) Geomagnetic Storm
What is the Space Weather Prediction Center?
The NWS Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) provided an update during their routine briefing to FEMA Headquarters. The NOAA Liaison to FEMA is also engaged with FEMA HQ regarding the latest forecasts and potential space weather impacts.
SWPC has around 38,000 accounts registered in their email subscription service, and frequent updates are being sent through that system.
SWPC is also updating customers through web page updates and social media.
SWPC has a system in place to notify power grid officials if conditions warrant, but this event is not expected to pose a significant threat to critical infrastructure.