Despite the hype surrounding today’s possible geomagnetic storms, there is no reason to panic.
Electrically charged gas ejected from the Sun’s surface will collide with Earth’s magnetic field sometime today, triggering geomagnetic storms. NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center hoping that the storms and their consequences will be small. However, the strange solar phenomenon behind the storms, known as a cannibal cloud, is terrifying and awesome.
Cannibal Clouds and Radio Blackouts
On July 15, the Sun shed a giant cloud of magnetized, electrically charged gas (called plasma) from its surface. The belt, known as a coronal mass ejection, originated from a patch of the sun’s surface where magnetic field lines rotate and do not settle: a sunspot known as AR 3363. Since AR 3363 happened to be pointed towards Earth at the time, the plasma cloud exploded. through space towards our little blue planet, 94.5 million miles away.
On the way, the giant plasma cloud appeared and swallowed another massive coronal stampede. The slower-moving plasma cloud left the Sun’s surface on July 14, erupting from a small visible sunspot known as AR 3370. The result of that merger, known as “cannibal cloud” The plasma should reach Earth sometime today, July 18, in what NOAA describes as a “close or sparkling pulse.”
Thanks to the cannibal cloud, we have a small geomagnetic storm. According to NOAA, there is a 50 percent chance that the cannibal cloud will slightly disrupt radio signals here on Earth, from weak signals to blackouts lasting a few minutes at a time, especially near the Arctic and Antarctic; people in these high latitude areas may see some small fluctuations in their power grids. Some satellites in orbit may need to be diverted to avoid damage.
There is a smaller chance, about 20 percent, that the geomagnetic storm could cause radio blackouts lasting about an hour over wider areas. Either way, it’s not exactly the Carrington Event.
What Does It All Mean?
We are approaching Solar Maximum, when our Sun’s magnetic fields are most active. Every 11 years, flip the Sun’s magnetic poles, and the activity before and after that flip can cause a flurry of solar flares, sunspots, and coronal mass eruptions. That means we’ll all have to get used to solar flares for the next few years.
Just as there is a system for classifying the intensity of hurricanes, NOAA has a system for rating the strength of solar flares: class A is the weakest, followed by B, C, M and X, and each class is 10 stronger than the class. last. Both solar flares were C-class flares that blew up huge chunks of the Sun’s upper layers over the weekend, making them middle-of-the-road events. NOAA says there is a “slight chance” of X-class flares over the next few days.
The same, NOAA has ratings for the strength of geomagnetic storms, which occur when a massive coronal stampede hits the Earth’s magnetic field; solar radiation storms, which occur when a burst of powerful solar radiation hits the Earth; and radio blackouts.
For example, today’s geomagnetic storms are considered class G1 or G2. Radio blackouts have been rated R2 for the past 24 hours, and are expected to be somewhere between R1 and R2 over the next few days, with a 20 percent chance of reaching R3. We’re also expecting an S1 solar radiation storm, thanks to an M-class flare from sunspot AR 3363 (this one apparently didn’t include a coronal mass awakening). That’s mostly a concern if you’re in orbit or in a high-flying plane near the poles.
To put all that into context, the Earth has already experienced several G4 and G5 geomagnetic storms this year. If you didn’t notice those, you probably won’t notice this one either.
But if you think cannibal clouds are really cool, you’re in luck. They are usually rare, as they only occur when two coronal supermassives burst into space along the same path, and when the second one is moving faster than the first one. As our Sun moves into the most active part of its 11-year cycle, however, we can probably expect to see more cannibal clouds coming our way.