On Monday, December 19, a mysterious shockwave in a gust of solar wind crashed into the Earth’s magnetic field, opening up a crack in the magnetosphere. According to Space Weather – an organization keeping track of such events – the barrage of plasma that penetrated the magnetosphere has led to a geomagnetic storm.
Although the shockwave’s origins are not exactly known, scientists believe it could have come from a coronal mass ejection (CME) launched by the sunspot AR3165, an area on the Sun’s surface which already released at least eight solar flares on December 14, causing a brief radio blackout over the Atlantic Ocean.
Sunspots are areas on the Sun’s surface where strong magnetic fields, created through the flow of electrical charges, entangle before suddenly snapping and releasing bursts of radiation called solar flares, or plumes of solar material called coronal mass ejections. Once launched, these CMEs can travel at extremely high speeds (often millions of miles per hour), sweeping up charged particles from the solar wind which, if pointed toward the Earth, can trigger geomagnetic storms.
These storms occur when solar debris consisting of electrons, protons, and alpha particles gets absorbed by the Earth’s magnetic field. If they are strong enough, they can create cracks in the magnetosphere which remain open for several hours, enabling some solar material to stream through and disrupt power systems, satellites, and radio communications.
Fortunately, the current storm was rather weak, causing only minor fluctuations in the power grids and impairing some satellite functions, such as those for mobile devices and GPS systems. However, scientists anticipate that in the following years, more powerful geomagnetic storms could warp our planet’s magnetic field to such an extent that satellites may tumble to Earth, electrical systems could be severely disrupted, and the Internet might stop working completely, thus causing trillions of dollars’ worth of damage, while triggering widespread blackouts and endangering thousands of lives.
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