How do you predict a solar storm? Space weather experts explain

For those who had the chance to see the aurora this weekend, it was quite a spectacular moment.

But while seeing the Northern Lights is thrilling and exciting for us, the same coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and geomagnetic storms that make these light shows possible can also wreak havoc on some of the technology that makes up our daily lives.

There was a lot of buzz last weekend about other possible impacts as the historic geomagnetic storms reached the extreme G5 category. Companies that operate satellites like SpaceX reported Sunday (May 12) on X that “all Starlink satellites in orbit have weathered the geomagnetic storm and remain healthy” and even government agencies like NOAA shared that there have been no major impacts to their assets to date.

“We are still gathering information about any impacts, not only on our satellites, but also on many other satellites,” says Dr. Elsayed Talaat, director of NOAA. Office of Space Weather Observations at NESDIS, said in an interview with “We were able to avert and limit any disaster thanks to the warnings given by… Center for Space Weather Forecasting to broadcast.”

Related: Solar flares: what are they and how do they affect Earth?

As with weather forecasts on Earth, space weather forecasts are just as important in the lead-up to the storm. That’s why NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) continually shares updates including alerts, watches and alerts as new information comes in and changes are made to the forecasts.

“We did a really good job with the onset of this storm. We saw the various coronal mass ejections and we came pretty close to when they would arrive here. It’s 93 million miles from the sun to the Earth, so within five to seven o’clock.” hours, we think that’s a pretty good prediction. We said it would be G4 or higher and it all worked; everything happened as expected,” Bill Murtagh, program coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), told

The more information forecasters can provide, the sooner energy companies can make the preparations necessary to prevent disruptions and power outages and other disruptions. Murtagh also said part of their job at the SWPC involves making 24-hour advance calls to power grid owners and operators across the country.

Colorful strings of light appear in the night sky

Colorful strings of light appear in the night sky

Following a statement by the Department of Energy, power grid operators must continue to assess the vulnerability of their assets to geomagnetic disturbances. In identifying their vulnerabilities, they need to have mitigation plans in place,” Murtagh said. “Some of it involves some technical solutions such as introducing blocking devices to help block that unwanted DC current in the AC network and other activities are simply in response to our warnings where they do different things and acknowledge their vulnerability. We have come a long way in the last decade to build that resilience.”

With any geomagnetic storm caused by a CME, there is a threat to anomalies and disruptions to our energy infrastructure here on Earth, in addition to satellites, GPS, aviation and spacecraft.

Even though the storm reached G5 status on May 10, we still dodged a bullet, in a sense. Solar radiation levels at this one were not as high as we have experienced during previous strong solar events. NOAA research before the space weather storm around Halloween in 2003 showed that it not only strengthened to extreme (G5) geomagnetic storm levels, but also strengthened to severe levels (S3/S4) on the scale of solar radiation.

“These particular storms we never got past a small S2 and that’s also a big question mark in our ability to predict – why are some big outbursts so rich in energetic protons, which is a big problem for satellites and for airlines flying on the high-latitude routes for astronauts,” Murtagh said.

“We haven’t seen much activity at the S-scale level and that’s also one of those mysteries that we really don’t understand and can’t really predict.”

an image of the sun with a large, bright white spot at the bottom rightan image of the sun with a large, bright white spot at the bottom right

an image of the sun with a large, bright white spot at the bottom right

As with weather forecasting, there are limitations to space weather forecasting, as Murtagh noted. Although so much progress has been made in forecasting, it is still not a perfect science and there is a lot to learn from each geomagnetic storm that occurs. Scientists were challenged with the latest event, as there were continuous rounds of CMEs fired close together, leading to expected complications.

“This is what really pushed us this weekend to speculate and try to determine which ones might have arrived and which ones are yet to arrive. And when they arrived, we had to determine what effect they would have after the The consequence of this extreme event was that we simply did not have a good idea of ​​what would happen on Saturday and Sunday,” said Murtagh.

“Back to the drawing board in a sense; we got some of it right. The important thing was to let everyone know it was coming so they could take action, but as things unfolded there was a lot to doing.”

Overall, this event provided important information for future events of similar magnitude. Additionally, learning more about CMEs will also continue to improve aurora forecasts, so we can also get a warning when it will be visible from our own backyard. So don’t give up hope yet.


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“We were trying to understand how many merged, because during most of the storm CMEs arrived and were kind of masked in the very high solar wind,” Murtagh said. “It was difficult for us to determine which ones were already there and flying past Earth and which ones had not yet arrived. In addition, the last few CMEs were not as focused on Earth as the previous ones, because the Sun rotates, so the sunspots a little bit more towards the extremities. Sometimes they can hit you hard and sometimes they can’t, so I think it was kind of a combination of both that we didn’t see that much on Sunday night.

“There’s a lot more solar activity to come in the coming months and years as we work our way through solar maximum.”

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