Monitoring the Kp index to see how far south the aurora moves to predict a moderate geomagnetic storm affecting Earth now

This illustration provides a rough indication of where the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) may appear based on the Kp index; the higher this number, the more the southern auroras appear. Image: NOAA SWPC

Amateur night sky watchers as well as leading space weather scientists monitor the Kp index to see how far south and how far the Northern Lights, also known as the ‘Aurora Borealis’, could be seen during an ongoing geomagnetic storm on Earth. A coronal mass ejection, or CME for short, leaped from the sun last Friday; its impacts were felt on Earth from Wednesday evening. A more powerful CME left the Sun yesterday, beaming a significant amount of energy towards Earth. Due to this CME activity rushing towards Earth, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has issued geomagnetic storm watches for storms of minor and moderate intensity. It is possible, but not likely, that the geomagnetic storm will exceed the moderate intensity level.

Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are large expulsions of plasma and magnetic field from the solar corona. They can eject billions of tons of coronal material and carry an embedded magnetic field, frozen in the flow, which is stronger than the strength of the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) of the solar background wind. CMEs travel away from the Sun at different speeds, with some reaching Earth in just 15 to 18 hours and others taking days to arrive. According to the SWPC, CMEs increase in size as they spread away from the Sun and the largest can grow to a size comprising almost a quarter of the space between Earth and the Sun by the time they reach our planet. . When impacts arrive on Earth, a geomagnetic storm occurs.

A common side effect of these geomagnetic storms is the presence of the Northern Lights. The likelihood and location of the Northern Lights is based on the Kp index of the storm. The K-index, and by extension the Planetary K-index, are used to characterize the magnitude of geomagnetic storms. The SWPC states that Kp is an excellent indicator of disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field and is used by the SWPC to decide if geomagnetic alerts and warnings should be issued to users affected by these disturbances. In addition to signifying how strongly the impact of a geomagnetic storm can be felt, the Kp index can also help indicate how low in latitude the aurora will be.

The current Space Weather Prediction Center Kp Index Dashboard.  Image: NOAA/SWPC
The current Space Weather Prediction Center Kp Index Dashboard. Image: NOAA/SWPC

NOAA’s First Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has called for the geomagnetic storm in progress, prior to today’s explosion, to have a Kp rating of 4 or greater. The higher the number, the more vibrant the auroras can be; in the northern hemisphere, a higher Kp also means the aurora could settle over the United States in southern locations that don’t typically see the aurora borealis. If the Kp index becomes higher than the originally predicted 4, auroras currently predicted to be visible in places like northern Michigan or Maine could move south: a Kp index of 7 or higher could make auroras present in clear skies in Boston, Chicago, and Seattle; a Kp rating of 9 or higher could light up the clear night skies of Washington, DC, St. Louis, Denver, and even Salt Lake City. In past severe geomagnetic storms, auroras have been visible as far south as Hawaii and the central Caribbean.

The latest geomagnetic forecast from the SWPC predicts a maximum Kp index of 6 right now late tonight/early tomorrow. If this were to materialize, the auroras could be visible in clouds free of light and cloud pollution across the Great Lakes, central New England, the upper Midwest and much of Montana and Washington. . If the Kp does not reach this intensity, the visible auroras could be confined to Canada. If the opposite occurs and the Kp rises above the predicted level of 7, 8, or even 9, major cities in the mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest could see auroras if sky conditions cooperate. .

While a higher Kp index generally produces a more spectacular display of the aurora borealis, it also presents more danger to systems that could be impacted by geomagnetic disturbances. Power system outages, network outages, communication and navigation system outages, etc., could occur if the geomagnetic storm is strong enough.

On September 1-2, 1859, a powerful geomagnetic storm struck Earth during Solar Cycle 10. A CME struck Earth and caused the largest geomagnetic storm on record. The storm was so intense that it created extremely bright and vivid auroras all over the planet: California residents thought the sun rose early, people in the northeastern United States could read a newspaper at night thanks to in the bright light of the aurora, and people as far south as Hawaii and south-central Mexico could see the aurora in the sky. This day became known as the “Carrington Event”. The event severely damaged the limited power and communication lines that existed at the time; telegraph systems around the world failed, with some telegraph operators reporting receiving electric shocks.

The sun moves in and out of active periods. A longer solar cycle is known as the Gleissberg cycle; this takes place every 80 to 100 years. During the Gleissberg cycle, large-scale solar events during solar maxima become four times more likely to occur.

A paper published last year by University of California Assistant Professor Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, titled “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse,” outlines the threats the sun poses to the globe and modern technology dependent on it. electronics and electricity.

The two most recent solar cycles, from 1996-2008 and 2008-2020, were part of a period of minimal activity during the Gleissberg cycle. “In other words, modern technological advances have coincided with a period of low solar activity and the sun is expected to become more active in the near future,” the paper says. Because the Internet grew during this period of minimal activity, it was never tested by a period of high solar activity. And unfortunately for the internet and everyone who depends on it, we may be about to begin a period of very strong solar activity.

A paper published last year by University of California Assistant Professor Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi, titled “Solar Superstorms: Planning for an Internet Apocalypse,” outlines the threats the sun poses to the globe and modern technology dependent on it. electronics and electricity.

“A recent study from November 2020 suggested that this cycle has the potential to be one of the strongest on record,” the study author said. “Recent estimates of the sunspot number at the peak of this cycle are between 210 and 260 (a very high value). In contrast, the previous cycle that ended in 2019 had a peak sunspot number of f 116. Since CMEs often originate from magnetically active regions near sunspots, a greater number of sunspots will increase the likelihood of a strong CME.If this estimate proves accurate, it will also significantly increase the likelihood of a strong CME. a large-scale event during this decade.

Large sunspots on the Sun project Earth-directed solar flares into space.  Image: NOAA SWPC
Large sunspots on the Sun are projecting Earth-directed solar flares into space this week. Such future explosions could cause damage to everything electronic on Earth. Image: NOAA SWPC

EMFs produce variations in the earth’s magnetic field, which in turn induce geoelectric fields on the earth’s conductive surface, such as the land or the ocean floor. The author of the paper describes the impact of a CME on cables: “These space- and time-varying electric fields are responsible for generating geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) as high as 100-130 amperes that can pass through any extensive ground conductive system such as power grids, mains cables, etc. This electromagnetic induced current enters/leaves the long distance conductors of the grounded neutral, causing the destruction of equipment power outages such as transformers/repeaters and in turn large scale power outages/internet outages spanning many states or even countries.”

Based on this, power grids, oil and gas pipelines, and network cables – including those on which the internet depends – are the most vulnerable to a strong solar outburst. In addition to damaging things on Earth, a strong solar explosion could also damage things in space, such as a communications satellite. If the blast is strong enough and a geomagnetic induced current is allowed to damage network infrastructure, the internet could be effectively killed until repairs are made. Globally, this could take weeks or months; some areas may never be able to be restored.

Although the exact timing of such a solar explosion is not known, scientists are quite confident that a deadly internet explosion is likely at some point in the future. Worse still, it seems that the United States is more vulnerable than other countries in the world. “The United States is one of the most vulnerable locations with a high risk of disconnection from Europe during extreme solar events,” the study said. “Intracontinental connections in Europe pose a lower risk due to the presence of a large number of shorter land and submarine cables interconnecting the continent.”

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