Everyone is familiar with weather systems on Earth like rain, wind and snow. But space weather – variable conditions in the space surrounding Earth – has important consequences for our lives inside Earth’s atmosphere.
Solar activity occurring miles outside Earth’s atmosphere, for example, can trigger magnetic storms on Earth. These storms are visually stunning, but they can set our modern infrastructure spinning.
On Jan. 19, scientists saw a solar flare in an active region of the Sun, along with a concentrated blast of solar-wind plasma and magnetic field lines known as a coronal mass ejection that burst from the Sun’s surface and appeared to be headed for Earth.
When these solar winds met Earth’s magnetic field, the interaction created one of the largest magnetic storms on Earth recorded in the past few years. The storm peaked on Jan. 24, just as another storm began.
“These new storms, and the storm we witnessed on Sept 26, 2011, indicate the up-tick in activity coming with the Earth’s ascent into the next solar maximum,” said USGS geophysicist Jeffrey Love.” This solar maximum is the period of greatest activity in the solar cycle of the Sun, and it is predicted to occur sometime in 2013, which will increase the amount of magnetic storms on Earth.
Magnetic storms, said Love, are a space weather phenomenon responsible for the breathtaking lights of the aurora borealis, but also sometimes for the disruption of technology and infrastructure our modern society depends on. Large magnetic storms, for example, can interrupt radio communication, interfere with global-positioning systems, disrupt oil and gas well drilling, damage satellites and affect their operations, and even cause electrical blackouts by inducing voltage surges in electric power grids. Storms can also affects airline activity — as a result of last weekend’s storm, both Air Canada and Delta Air Lines rerouted flights over the Arctic bound for Asia as a precautionary measure. Although the storm began on the 19th of January, it did not peak until January 24th.
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