It is quite common for Earth to be hit by coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that have emanated from the sun.
But what is less familiar to scientists is the ‘cannibalistic’ ejection of energetic and highly magnetized gas, which is exactly what is currently on a collision course with our planet.
Having originated from multiple solar storms and an unusual “dark flare,” it is feared that the cannibalistic CME could cause a weak geomagnetic storm when it hits Earth today (Tuesday).
Although this is unlikely to significantly affect our electronic systems, satellites, or power grids, scientists have warned that minor outages and blackouts are possible.
Sean Elvidge, Associate Professor of Space Environment at the University of Birmingham, told MailOnline: “These storms manifest as major disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field, which could cause various effects on space weather.”
Warning: A ‘cannibalistic’ coronal mass ejection from the sun is slamming into Earth today, potentially triggering a geomagnetic storm. Pictured is a CME eruption which was then swept up by a second, faster ejection to form a ‘cannibal’ cloud heading towards our planet.
WHAT ARE CORONAL MASS EJECTIONS?
Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are large clouds of plasma and magnetic fields that erupt from the sun.
These clouds can erupt in any direction and then continue in that direction, making their way through the solar wind.
These clouds only cause impacts on Earth when they are pointed at Earth.
They tend to be much slower than solar flares, since they move a greater amount of matter.
CMEs can be activated when a storm on the sun’s surface causes a vortex to form at the base of loops of plasma projecting from the surface.
These loops are called bulges and when they become unstable they can break, releasing the CME into space.
‘On the one hand, they can result in radio blackouts, disrupting communication systems on our planet. On the other hand, these storms can produce amazing displays of natural beauty known as auroras.’
Essentially, a ‘cannibalistic’ CME forms when an initial ejection is followed by a second, faster one that catches up with the first and sweeps it away to create a huge wave of plasma.
“This can have significant consequences both in space and here on Earth,” added Dr. Elvidge.
“The CME collision serves as a reminder of the immense power of the sun and its potential impact on our technological infrastructure and society.”
Four days ago, along with a CME, a so-called “dark flare” was launched, so named because the solar flare contains unusually cold plasma that makes it appear darker compared to the surface of the sun.
Then, 24 hours later, a second, faster CME emerged from a separate, much larger sunspot.
It was this faster CME that later caught up with the previous one and led to the creation of a cannibal cloud that is predicted to hit us later.
The Space Weather arm of the Weather Bureau said “geomagnetic activity is likely to be unstable or active at first,” with minor geomagnetic storms a possibility.
This prediction was echoed by the US-based Space Weather Prediction Center, which created a simulation showing that the cannibalistic CME will attack us today.
Essentially, a ‘cannibalistic’ CME forms when an initial ejection is followed by a second, faster one that catches up with the first and sweeps it away to create a huge wave of plasma (pictured above).
Solar activity: Four days ago a so-called “dark eruption” was launched along with a CME. Then, 24 hours later, a second, faster CME erupted from a separate, much larger sunspot (pictured)
CATEGORIES OF GEOMAGNETIC STORMS
Such impacts are quite rare because they require successive CMEs that must travel at specific speeds and be perfectly aligned with each other.
However, one struck just two years ago, triggering a major geomagnetic storm.
These storms are classified according to the G scale.
What is forecast to kick in today is the weaker type, or G-1, which can cause weak fluctuations in the power grid and have less of an impact on satellite operations.
G-2 is moderate, G-3 is strong, where false alarms can be triggered on some protective devices, and G-4 is severe.
A G-5 geomagnetic storm is the most severe. Labeled ‘extreme’, it can cause blackouts, damage transformers and make it difficult to control satellites in low-Earth orbit.
Although rare, cannibalistic CMEs are seen in increasing numbers as the sun reaches the peak of its 11-year solar cycle, the next of which expires in 2025.
This is because the sun’s magnetic field becomes increasingly unstable, which in turn increases the number of sunspots from which CMEs can arise.
It had been thought that the 2025 peak would be weaker than previous solar maximums, although recent research suggests otherwise, and that it could come sooner than two years.
Calculations: The US-based Center for Space Weather Prediction created a simulation showing that the cannibalistic CME is headed for our planet.
SOLAR STORMS POSE A CLEAR DANGER TO ASTRONAUTS AND CAN DAMAGE SATELLITES
solar stormsor solar activity, can be divided into four main components that may have impacts on Earth:
- solar flares: A huge explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. These flares are made of photons traveling directly from the site of the flare. Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the Earth-facing side of the sun.
- Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs): Large clouds of plasma and magnetic field sprouting from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction and then continue in that direction, making their way through the solar wind. These clouds only cause impacts on Earth when they are pointed at Earth.
- High speed solar wind currents: These come from coronal holes in the sun, which form anywhere on the sun and usually only when closest to the solar equator do winds impact Earth.
- solar energetic particles: High-energy charged particles thought to be released primarily by shocks formed in front of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud passes through the solar wind, energetic solar particles can be produced and, because they are charged, they follow the magnetic field lines between the Sun and Earth. Only charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect Earth will have an impact.
While these may seem dangerous, astronauts are not in immediate danger from these phenomena due to the relatively low orbit of crewed missions.
However, they do have to worry about cumulative exposure during spacewalks.
This photo shows the sun’s coronal holes in an X-ray image. The solar outer atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and fields magnetic waves called coronal mass ejections.
Damage caused by solar storms
Solar flares can damage satellites and have a huge financial cost.
Charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing Earth’s magnetic field.
Very large flares can even create currents within power grids and shut off power.
When coronal mass ejections hit Earth, they cause geomagnetic storms and intensified auroras.
They can disrupt radio waves, GPS coordinates, and overload electrical systems.
A large influx of power could flow into high-voltage power grids and permanently damage transformers.
This could close businesses and homes around the world.
Fountain: NASA – Solar Storm and Space Weather