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Rare solar storm can impact electronics, GPS systems

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FILE – This Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 file photo shows power lines in Houston. On Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly asserting wind turbines freezing over in the cold weather were primarily responsible for Texans losing heat and electricity this week. Failures in natural gas, coal and nuclear energy systems were responsible for nearly twice as many outages as frozen wind turbines and solar panels combined, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state’s power grid, said in a press conference Tuesday. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

DENVER (KDVR) — A rare geomagnetic storm that has the potential to mess with some electronic and GPS systems is hitting the globe right now but due to the fact that it’s invisible to the naked eye – you likely won’t notice it.

The Space Weather Prediction Center (NOAA) rated it as a G3-level event. It arrived this morning at 12:43 AM. While the rating is considered strong, it’s not like a severe G5 geomagnetic storm, which can absolutely obliterate electronic systems.

THE SCIENCE

The rare event is caused by a wave of energy that is ejected from the sun. As it hits our upper-most atmosphere, known as the magnetosphere, it interacts with the ionosphere and ends up creating radio waves. This phenomenon can end up destroying electronics because it creates a new current in otherwise passive lines. It can also interrupt and in some cases bring down power grids in some areas of the world.

The storm also can put radio communications systems and satellites at risk. Astronauts that are housed at the International Space Station can be at an increased risk for radiation exposure during this time due the passing solar particles. Here on Earth, our magnetic field protects us from the same radiation waves.

THE IMPACT

If you were an airline pilot flying over the North Pole enroute to Asia and you tried to transmit a message through your radio, you might only get static. Some geomagnetic storms have been severe enough to cause flight diversions from these regions for safety.

Anyone who is managing a power grid today will likely tell you about unusual voltage fluctuations that are caused by the sun’s energy interactions. That event can cause transformers to blowout which could lead to local power outages. These types of disruptions are rare and are usually limited to northern regions of the globe where the intensity of the fluctuations are more severe. For instance, a power grid up based in Alaska might be more prone to power fluctuations compared to a grid in Florida.

On March 19th, 1989, the entire Canadian province of Quebec was impacted by an outage because a solar flare knocked out power. In 1859, a similar storm known as the “Carrington event” was observed by an astronomer and sent so much energy to earth that it produced auroras as far south as Hawaii and right here in the Colorado Rockies. If the same event happened today, we could lose trillions of dollars worth of electronics, communications and energy infrastructure.

You may have noticed today’s storm impacting your own navigation apps. If you’re driving around town, you may notice that your own apps have trouble determining your exact location. Satellites that are in low orbit may also experience a strange reduction in speed that could cause them to start falling back toward earth. That requires their operators to start using boosters that are on board to lift them back up which in turn, can reduce their overall service life. In extreme cases, the onboard electronics could get damaged. Even SpaceX’s low orbit-based network of 12,000 satellites that provide internet could face issues with any of the aforementioned events.

IN CONCLUSION

Geomagnetic storms can cause some real damage to our electronics, but they’re rarely severe. When the sun sends these flares our way, there’s little we can do but design our systems around the possibilities and prepare accordingly. Even though sunlight takes just eight minutes to get earth, it typically takes the better part of a day for the charged particles of a solar flare to reach the globe. Luckily, we have satellites that are designed to warn us about these types of events and early detection can allow industries to shutdown their sensitive components.

These rare events can also create rare auroras that can be spotted as far south as Ohio and Idaho. With a G3-level event, this could certainly happen again tonight. One idea – try to get away from the city lights and you may be able to catch a glimpse of the dancing northern lights.

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