Right between Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, another storm is coming — but this one is coming from the sun, and it’ll hit the entire planet.
Two days ago, the sun belched a huge quantity of charged particles toward Earth, and they’re likely to arrive at Earth on Wednesday and Thursday. The charged particles, wrapped up in a magnetic field and called a coronal mass ejection, have the potential to be anything from a minor to a significant problem.
The solar storm could disrupt radio communications and plane flights, according to space plasma physicist Tamitha Skov, who monitors space weather with the help of various spacecraft that keep an eye on the sun. And it definitely will spoil the fun for ham radio hobbyists by saturating the airwaves with noise.
“It’s going to be a big storm, and it’s going to be long duration,” Skov said in a Periscope presentation Wednesday. But for those fearing something on the potentially catastrophic scale of 1859’s Carrington event, she added, “Don’t worry.”
Solar storms are generally benign, thanks to the Earth’s protective magnetic field. But they pose a risk to modern living, too, because they can wreak havoc with continent-spanning electrical systems. A 1989 solar storm knocked out power in the Canadian province of Quebec, leaving millions of people in the dark for 12 hours.
The US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) upgraded its assessment Wednesday to G3, a “strong” rating that’s well short of that severity. A G3 means electrical grid operators may have to fiddle with voltage and satellites may suffer orientation and communication glitches. Stronger storms are more likely to mess up high-frequency radio communications like the signals GPS satellites use to help us navigate with Google Maps on our phones.
The real severity won’t be known until observers find out if the orientation of the storm’s magnetic field is aligned with Earth’s, a connection that would mean more of the storm’s energy could be transferred to the planet, Skov said. Either way, you’ll have to ride this particular storm out.
“There’s not much you can really do about it. It’s like a heavy rainstorm or a hurricane,” she said. “You can’t evacuate the Earth.”
It’s not clear yet whether the Federal Aviation Administration or other agencies will take action, such as directing planes to fly at more-protected lower altitudes. All jet travel involves exposure to radiation from space, but it’s worse during solar storms. The FAA offers a calculator to estimate the radiation dose from airplane flights that already took place.
The storm means it’ll be a good time to look at the night sky, though, because Earth’s auroras could be visible to many more of us. That’s because a solar storm pushes the glowing lights in the sky away from the Earth’s polar regions toward territory where more of us live.
NOAA expects it could reach as far south as Nebraska and Illinois. The auroras are caused by the sun’s charged particles colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere.
The particles from solar storms travel at different speeds but take hours or days to reach Earth. A related but separate phenomenon, solar flares release electromagnetic radiation including X-rays and radio waves that travel at the speed of light. That means only 8 minutes go by between the flare and its disruption of radio communications on the sun-facing side of the Earth.
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