On February 12, a mild solar flare erupted from the surface of the Sun with an associated coronal mass ejection, which threw a huge amount of charged particles into the solar wind. Those particles are currently hitting our magnetosphere and they might lead to a pretty impressive Northern Lights show.
The Space Weather Prediction Center, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has issued a warning that the geomagnetic K-index will be four (out of nine). The storm is nothing to worry about, at the most, there will be some weak power grid fluctuations. And if you’re at latitudes beyond 65 degrees then you should also see the aurorae. While the spectacle there will be impressive, it won’t be as enticing as last September's event.
Although both this solar flare and the geomagnetic storm are in the mild category, the event has had people talking about what’s in place to protect infrastructures from more powerful events in the future. While these storms give rise to the Northern lights, one of the most sublime spectacles on Earth, they are also a threat to electronic equipment and our modern lifestyle.
Geomagnetic storms, also known as solar storms, are temporary disturbances of the Earth’s magnetosphere caused by intense solar activity. Electrically charged particles from the Sun are currently streaming through the solar system, this is what we called the solar wind. But once in a while, a coronal mass ejection happens, and a high-speed wave of plasma gets added to the usual amount. A geomagnetic storm happens if the wave of plasma hits the Earth’s magnetic field.
We can only theorize what a powerful storm would do to our tech. The most powerful solar storm on record, the Carrington event, was responsible for aurorae from the poles to the tropics as well as generating fires in telegraph stations across the US and Europe in 1859. It was estimated that the cost of a solar storm of such magnitude today could be in the order of trillions of dollars for the US alone.
This mild event tells us that predicting these phenomena is not trivial. The Sun needs to be kept under constant observation and some researchers believe we might be missing some powerful storms already.