Each season on Earth comes with the potential for bad weather. During winter, blizzards ground flights and close schools. High summer sees tornados, while late summer and early autumn bring hurricanes. In addition, a unique type of “weather” activity has been getting plenty of attention recently, and for good reason. During the past few weeks, the Earth has been bombarded with the intense radiation released from the Sun during a coronal mass ejection (CME), a potentially dangerous form of space weather. CMEs result from the release of energetic particles from the outer atmosphere, or corona, of the Sun. The corona has magnetic bubbles that trap superhot gases, but every so often, the bubbles pop, releasing their contents into space. This process normally produces non-threatening solar flares. However, sometimes the bursting solar bubbles result in CMEs, which release up to a billion tons of plasma from the Sun that can travel at close to 5 million miles per hour. CMEs aren’t that uncommon, but recent events are notable for their magnitude (the largest we’ve seen since 2005) and their direction — heading almost directly at Earth.
For the same reasons weathermen warn us about snowstorms and hurricanes, scientists around the world are keeping an eye on these solar storms. If the huge burst of radiation that result from CMEs hits the Earth, the collision with our planet’s magnetic field will creates a dangerous geomagnetic storm. Our most vulnerable assets are those we rely on daily without thinking about them — the multitudes of satellites in orbit that help us navigate and communicate with each other, spy on our enemies (and allies) and track terrestrial weather patterns. Even power grids on the ground can be disabled if they absorb the energy these storms produce, much as a power surge can wipe out your computer. We’ve seen major CME events cause blackouts in the past, including during the so-called Halloween Storm of 2003 and other large storms in the late 1980s.
Solar storms are especially hazardous for airplane travel. The communication systems used by commercial airliners are sensitive to interference, including the atmospheric activity that would result from a CME hit. In addition, the increased radiation found at high altitudes during these events could be dangerous to passengers. Fortunately, airlines have established protocols to reduce these risks by avoiding areas with excessive amounts of radiation, such as the North Pole and the stratosphere. Even the International Space Station (ISS), which is engineered to withstand exposure to radiation, calls for astronauts to avoid taking spacewalks and spend as much time as possible in the shielded core of the ISS.
Nonetheless, CMEs have one bright spot. These storms produce some of the most brilliant displays of Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights. Some residents of countries such as Sweden and Norway have even reported that the lights are visible during the day because of their abnormal intensity. Forecasters predict that this activity may continue throughout the year and even parts of next year as the Sun nears the peak of its 11-year cycle. So if you happen to notice your GPS acting funny or your flight taking longer than usual, remember that it may have to do something with that wonderful, yellow glowing orb in the sky!