Could a solar storm this week cause tech disruptions? NOAA expert explains

The event could affect power grids and GPS.

ByJulia Jacobo ABCNews logo
Monday, January 22, 2024
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Earth is in the midst of a moderate solar storm - but will it be strong enough to cause technology disruptions?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center has issued a geomagnetic storm watch after a coronal mass ejection (CME) - a powerful burst of magnetized plasma from the sun's corona, its outermost layer - was observed lifting off the sun on Sunday.

The CME is expected to cause a moderate solar storm here on Earth on Monday and Tuesday, according to NOAA.

So what, exactly, does it all mean, and should we be worried?

What is a solar storm?

A solar storm, also known as geomagnetic storm, occurs when the solar wind - which consists of charged particles that are constantly streaming from the sun - interact with the Earth's magnetic field, or magnetosphere, causing a significant disturbance, according to NASA. The type and severity of that disturbance depends on variations in the solar wind, which can produce major changes in the currents, plasmas and fields in Earth's magnetosphere.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured this image of a solar flare on Oct. 2, 2014.

The current solar storm resulted from an eruption from a filament, which is a magnetic field suspended above the sun's surface that contains billions of tons of solar material, Shawn Dahl, coordinator for NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, told ABC News. When that magnetic field becomes unstable, it can sometimes eject material into space, dragging a very strong, localized magnetic field with it, Dahl said.

These filament eruptions are what caused the solar storms observed on Saturday, Sunday, and again on Monday morning, Dahl said.

How solar storms can affect technology

Intense geomagnetic storms can bombard the Earth with subatomic particles, in turn potentially disrupting navigation systems by interfering with radio and GPS signals, as well as electrical power networks, according to NOAA. The storm also adds energy to currents in the magnetosphere in the form of heat that can increase both the density and distribution of density in the upper atmosphere, in turn causing extra drag on satellites in low-Earth orbit.

"This is what so many things rely on when we're communicating with satellites in space," Dahl said.

The Sun emitted a strong solar flare, peaking at 12:02 p.m. EST, on Dec. 14, 2023. NASA
The Sun emitted a strong solar flare, peaking at 12:02 p.m. EST, on Dec. 14, 2023.

This storm should not bring any major impacts to everyday life, Dahl said. While the power grid may notice anomalous activity on high-voltage transmission lines, they are equipped to handle a slight disruption, Dahl added.

In addition, if anything starts to happen with satellites that are in a low-Earth orbit, and the atmosphere there heats up because of the geomagnetic storm activity, measures can be taken to keep satellites at their proper orbital height, Dahl said.

Where the northern lights will be visible in the U.S.

One of the most common manifestations of CMEs impacting the Earth's magnetosphere is the aurora borealis, more commonly known as the northern lights, in which the interaction creates ribbons of light in the far northern skies that glow green, pink and other colors. In the Southern hemisphere, the phenomenon is known as the aurora australis, or southern lights. The glowing ribbons occur as the energy states return to normal, Dahl told ABC News.

"That light is what we see in the form of the aurora," he said.

The stronger the solar storm, the father south the northern lights can be seen.

NOAA ranks geomagnetic storms on a five-point scale, with those rated G5, the strongest, being capable of widespread voltage control problems that could lead to power blackouts or even the complete collapse of some power grid systems. In this scenario, auroras could possibly be seen as far south as Florida and southern Texas.

Tonight's aurora viewline forecast, Jan. 22, 2024.

While the general public doesn't need to be concerned about the upcoming G2, or "moderate" storm, NOAA warns that power systems at high latitudes could experience voltage alarms, while long-duration storms may cause transformer damage. In addition, high-frequency radio signals can possibly fade at higher latitudes.

Auroras this time of year are typically the most visible from several hours after sunset to around the midnight hour, Dahl said. Viewers wanting to see them will have to take the full moon into account, as well as get away from any city lights - especially to the north, because that's the direction in which to look, Dahl added.

The auroras are forecast to be visible on Monday into Tuesday in northern and upper Midwest states, from New York to Idaho, according to NOAA.

In the absence of clouds, the northern lights could be visible from states like South Dakota, Iowa, North Dakota, Montana, Michigan, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, forecasts show.

Why auroras, solar storms may occur more frequently

More frequent aurora displays are likely in the coming years, as the sun reaches the solar maximum stage of its magnetic field activity in 2025, Dahl said. The sun reaches its solar maximum about every 11 years, at which time the sun's magnetic field equalizes and returns to normal, Dahl explained.

Earth is currently approaching the peak of Solar Cycle 25, in which more sunspots with intense magnetic activity are expected, according to NOAA. Impactful space weather events are possible throughout 2024.

The projected peak of this solar cycle is between now and October, Dahl said.

"This whole year in through 2025 are good times to be anticipating more of this type of activity," Dahl said.

A total solar eclipse on April 8 will give stargazers a rare chance to see the sun's corona. Dahl advised viewers to equip themselves with the correct eyewear to safely observe the phenomenon.

"Now's the time to buy the equipment," he said.