A “cannibal” eruption of solar material is due to make contact with Earth from Wednesday through Friday after a series of explosions on the sun’s surface in recent days.
The eruption of material, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), was launched from the sun in the early hours of August 15, less than a day after another one had been observed on August 14.
CMEs are clouds of charged matter known as plasma that are ejected from the sun whenever a group of the sun’s tangled magnetic field lines suddenly shift or realign, releasing huge amounts of energy.
CMEs happen all the time, but if they happen to be launched in the direction of Earth, they can interact with our planet’s magnetic field and cause what’s known as a geomagnetic storm. Geomagnetic storms can cause issues such as radio navigation problems, increased drag on satellites, power grid fluctuations and auroras to occur away from the poles.
Storms are ranked G1 to G5 by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), with G5 being the strongest and most disruptive type and G1 being mild.
On Monday, the SWPC issued a notice describing possible incoming geomagnetic storms on Wednesday and Thursday this week. Thursday in particular was expected to see a G2-class storm, but on Tuesday evening this was upgraded to a potential “strong” G3 event and Friday was added as an affected day.
The SWPC said a stronger storm was possible because of the “combined arrival” of multiple CMEs at the same time. It’s thought that at least four have been on their way to Earth since August 14.
Solar activity news website spaceweather.com has referred to the August 15 CME as a “cannibal CME” because it “might overtake and gobble up” the one that came before it the previous day.
The potential G3 storm expected in the coming days should not be a cause for concern for most people. The SWPC stated such storms might lead to increased drag on low-Earth orbit satellites, intermittent problems for low-frequency radio navigation and satellite navigation, and auroras in states as low as Illinois and Oregon. The storms may also mean that voltage corrections might be needed on power systems.
For the general public, a CME of this strength is not likely to be noticeable or disrupt day-to-day life.
It would take a much stronger storm, such as a G5-class event, to cause power grid collapse or blackouts, for instance.
For some industries, CMEs can be more bothersome. Earlier in 2022, dozens of SpaceX satellites were destroyed after a geomagnetic storm caused increased resistance in low-Earth orbit, causing them to fall back down to Earth.
Newsweek has contacted NOAA space weather for comment.