- An eruption on the sun's surface has sent plasma and charged particles speeding towards Earth.
- That coronal mass ejection is forecast to reach our planet late Wednesday as a solar storm that could interfere with radio, GPS, and power grids.
- The aurora borealis could appear from Pennsylvania to Iowa to Oregon as solar particles interact with the atmosphere.
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Across the northern regions of Earth, GPS and radio might act glitchy on Thursday, and the northern lights could creep down into Iowa.
That's because a huge eruption burst from the surface of the sun on Monday. It sent out plasma and magnetically charged particles, called a coronal mass ejection (CME), that are now speeding towards Earth.
Forecasters expect the CME to arrive at our planet late Wednesday, initially resulting in a mild geomagnetic storm that could get more extreme if it hits Earth's magnetic field just right, according to the National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center.
The NWS issued a geomagnetic-storm watch that's effective through Friday. It warns of a potentially "strong" storm on Thursday in which electric and magnetic interference from the solar particles could interfere with power grids, GPS, and radio communications. It could even affect satellites' orbits around Earth.
These impacts could extend into the northern US and bring the aurora borealis — a reaction between solar particles and Earth's atmosphere — down into regions from Pennsylvania to Iowa to Oregon.
The storm may continue at a moderate level on Friday.
Mike Hapgood, a space-weather consultant the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK, told Business Insider that these disturbances will probably be a "minor nuisance."
But the incoming CME is a preview of an upcoming period of intense solar activity that could bring more damaging storms. The sun is entering a new 11-year solar cycle, which means its eruptions and flares will grow more frequent and violent, ramping up to a peak in 2025.
"This is more a wake-up call that stronger storms could occur in the next few years – and we ought to make sure we are ready for them," Hapgood said.
Strong solar storms are fairly common — the NWS estimates that each solar cycle produces about 200 of them — but scientists can't always predict them like this. That often means that power grids and key radio connections are left vulnerable.
NASA is working to better predict space weather
Electric currents from solar storms can travel down Earth's pipelines and power lines, overpowering technologies that humans rely on.
In 1989, an inundation of particles from the sun knocked out Quebec's power for about nine hours. Two other solar storms cut off emergency radio communications for a total of 11 hours shortly after Hurricane Irma in 2017. A solar storm may have even cut off SOS broadcasts from the Titanic as it sank on April 14, 1912.
Bursts of solar activity can also endanger astronauts in Earth's orbit by interfering with their spacecraft or knocking out communications to mission control.
Studying the source of charged solar particles could help scientists figure out how to protect both astronauts and Earth's electric grid from these unpredictable electrical storms. Two spacecraft currently orbiting the sun are doing just that.
In February, NASA and the European Space Agency launched the Solar Orbiter to capture data about eruptions on the sun's surface. NASA's Parker Solar Probe is also zooming around the sun. It's designed to measure solar eruptions as they happen, tracing the flow of material from the sun to the Earth in real-time.
The information these spacecraft are collecting could one day help scientists forecast more geomagnetic storms before they happen.
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