The National Weather Service may not sound like the most exciting of government bodies, but some really interesting things fall under their umbrella. Take, for instance, the fact that it is responsible for the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), which “provides real-time monitoring and forecasting of solar and geophysical events which impact satellites, power grids, communications, navigation, and many other technological systems”.
The SWPC has been tracking the largest solar storm since 2005, which began after a large solar flare Sunday night and is accompanied by a radiation storm expected to continue at least until tomorrow morning.
Solar storms resulting from these kinds of flares come in three stages. Electromagnetic radiation comes first, followed by radiation via protons. We are still in the midst of this radiation storm, which has remained at a classification of S3 (Strong) all day but is expected to peak and start declining soon. This is the highest level from a solar storm in years, but still not enough to prompt astronauts on the International Space Station to take any additional or unusual steps to protect themselves from it. The last and most dramatic part of the solar storm – the Coronal Mass Ejection – will hit Earth at approximately 9am EST.
According to NASA’s Cosmicopia, a Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) are “balloon-shaped bursts of solar wind rising above the solar corona, expanding as they climb”. They are the largest explosions in our solar system, emitting up to 220 billion lbs of plasma, travelling at speeds of around 2 million mph, and equaling almost the same power as one billion hydrogen bombs. CMEs are so powerful that they can cause disturbances in Earth’s magnetosphere, disrupt power grids, and make the Northern Lights visible farther south than they naturally would.
Doug Biesecker says we shouldn’t expect such dramatic results from this CME, though. A physicist at the space weather center, Biesecker told USA Today that, while this CME is traveling at an unusually quick speed of 4 million mph, it will likely only reach levels of moderate or possibly severe. There aren’t likely to be power grid outages like the one in Quebec in 1989 or pull the Northern Lights down much farther south than upstate New York, Montana, and the Pacific Northwest.