Beware of live aurora shows: Scientists say

“Planetary shocks” that directly hit Earth’s magnetic field are what scientists need to predict to protect any electrically conductive infrastructure, according to a new study. Published today in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Science.

Spectacular displays of green, red, purple and blue auroras — such as the global geomagnetic storm on May 10 — can mean powerful currents reaching Earth that can damage power lines, oil and gas pipelines, railways and undersea cables.

planetary shocks

A planetary shock — which can result in the beautiful northern and southern lights — is a disturbance in the solar wind. It’s caused by a coronal mass ejection from the sun. A CME is a cloud of magnetic fields and charged particles from the sun that streams out into space at speeds of up to 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) per second.

This disturbance causes the Earth’s protective magnetic bubble to compress, often triggering the aurora. However, the angle of impact of the interplanetary shocks is key to the strength of the currents, the research says.

This is important because planetary shocks are more common during solar maximums, which scientists believe are happening now.

Currents caused by Earth’s magnetic field can damage infrastructure that conducts electricity. The stronger the planetary shock, the stronger the currents and auroras. If scientists can predict that the next planetary shock will be a direct hit, rather than a passing strike, it could help protect infrastructure before it hits, the researchers say.

higher peaks

The study found that shocks that hit the Earth directly, rather than at an angle, trigger the strongest geomagnetically induced currents. Using a database of interplanetary shocks and comparing them to geomagnetically induced current readings from a natural gas pipeline in Mäntsälä, Finland—in the “aurora zone”—the scientists found that forward shocks cause higher peaks in geomagnetically induced currents. That’s because they compress the magnetic field more.

The researchers also found that the most intense peaks occurred around “magnetic midnight,” the time of night (around actual midnight, local time) when the North Pole is between the sun and Mantsala on the night side of Earth.

Space climate

“Aurorae and geomagnetically induced currents are caused by factors similar to space weather.” He said “Space weather is the outflow of charged particles from the Sun – the solar wind,” said Dr. Denny Oliveira of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and lead author of the study. “The aurora is a visual warning that electrical currents in space can generate these geomagnetically induced currents on Earth.”

The aurora display on May 10 was particularly intense. The aurora typically appears as an oval around the polar regions, but on that date, the arrival of several coronal mass ejections caused the oval to expand. “The aurora zone can expand dramatically during intense geomagnetic storms,” Oliveira said. “Its southern boundary is usually around 70 degrees latitude, but during extreme events, it can drop to 40 degrees or even further, which is certainly what happened during the May 2024 storm—the most intense storm in the past two decades.”

I wish you clear skies and wide eyes.

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