Solar Storm That Could Spark Northern Lights to Hit Earth Today

A solar storm is heading towards Earth that could potentially cause auroras in parts of North America.

The geomagnetic storm is expected to occur today, Wednesday, after the sun released a coronal mass ejection (CME) on January 29—a vast expulsion of energetic material that has been travelling towards Earth at over 400 miles per second since then.

The CME is expected to arrive on February 2, 2022, and may have already done so at the time of writing.

CMEs are not especially rare. Their frequency varies, depending on the sun's 11-year cycle, but at a minimum they're observed about once per week. However, they don't always end up being directed towards Earth.

When they are, CMEs have the potential to impact the Earth's magnetic field, since CMEs themselves carry magnetic fields from the sun.

This impact of the Earth's magnetic field can cause more intense auroras than usual, but also wreak havoc on electrical systems, navigation, and spacecraft if the CME is strong enough.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) released an alert on January 31 warning that a geomagnetic storm was predicted to occur from Wednesday to Thursday this week and probably reach its strongest point on Wednesday.

The storm was predicted to potentially be a G2 or moderate-level storm. During a storm of this strength, power systems at high latitudes may experience voltage alarms, spacecraft ground control teams may need to take corrective actions regarding orientation, high frequency radio can fade at higher latitudes, and auroras may be seen as low as New York and Idaho.

However, in its most recent alert the SWPC stated that the potential impacts of Wednesday's storm specifically may include weak power grid fluctuations and auroras visible at high latitudes, such as Canada and Alaska.

It's unclear exactly when they might occur, or for how long.

CMEs are released from the sun when the highly twisted and stressed magnetic field structures within the sun's atmosphere realign themselves into a less tense configuration, which results in the sudden release of energy in the form of a solar flare and a CME.

While solar flares and CMEs are associated with one another they are not to be confused. Solar flares are sudden flashes of light and high energy particles that reach Earth in minutes. CMEs are clouds of magnetized particles that can take a few days to reach our planet.

Some solar storms caused by CMEs are more severe than others, with the Carrington Event being one such example of a very strong storm.

If a G5, or "extreme" category storm were to occur, we could expect to see the complete collapse of some power grid systems, problems with satellite communication, high-frequency radio offline for days, and auroras as far south as Florida and southern Texas.

Coronal loops
A coronal loop seen in the sun's atmosphere in this photo, released in September, 2000, taken by NASA's TRACE spacecraft. Energy from the sun can cause geomagnetic storms on Earth. NASA/Newsmakers