An enormous solar flare could hit Earth with a “glancing blow” today, producing “G1-class geomagnetic storms”, experts have said.
The solar flare, also known as a Coronal Mass Injection (CME), was picked up by physicists on Wednesday May 25. CMEs are powerful eruptions of plasma on the Sun’s surface.
Billions of tons of material are lifted off the surface and can explode away from the Sun with the force of around 20 million nuclear explosions.
The phenomenon is very common and not all flares travel towards the Earth, but when they do, they have the power to be disruptive.
SpaceWeather.com said: “A magnetic filament snaking through the corpse of decayed sunspot AR3016 erupted on May 25th (1824 UT), producing a M1-class solar flare.
“Coronagraph images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) confirm that the explosion hurled a CME into space.
“The bulk of the CME will miss Earth, passing just ahead and south of our planet. However, a fraction of the cloud will hit.
“NOAA analysts expect a glancing blow to Earth’s magnetosphere on May 28th with a chance of minor G1-class geomagnetic storms.”
Scientists don’t quite yet understand what causes CME’s, but do believe that it is something to do with the Sun’s magnetic field.
EarthSky.org explained: “Because the sun is a fluid, turbulence tends to twist the magnetic field into complex contortions. Twist the field too much, and it kinks, much like a phone cord or toy Slinky.
“These kinks snap the magnetic field and can potentially drive vast amounts of plasma into space.”
Each solar flare that shoots through space and hits Earth can spark a geomagnetic storm, which occurs if enough energy from the solar wind is exchanged in a close proximity to Earth.
The storms are then ranked by US Space Weather Centre (SWPC) on a scale of G1 Minor up to G5 Extreme.
We mainly notice the impact of solar flares and subsequent geomagnetic storms when they affect our tech on Earth – with our planet’s magnetic field helping to protect us from more extreme consequences to humans.
The SWPC said that when CMEs collide with the planet’s magnetosphere “all of that extra radiation can damage the satellites we use for communications and navigation, it can disrupt power grids that provide our electricity”.
One of the most recent examples of the impact of space weather was in 1989 when Quebec lost power due to a geomagnetic storm.
The high power grid lost its safety systems in just 92 seconds because of a space storm. It took nine hours to restore power to six million people.
The incoming disturbance could also cause auroras, similar to the Northern Lights.