The phenomena named by the scientists “space weather” can affect Earth in a variety of ways: from creating fascinating light shows like auroral displays, to actually causing damage to satellite infrastructure.
Earth can brace itself for solar storms “cannibalising” one another to hit the planet in the upcoming four years, scientists have estimated.
“The last several years really we’ve had very little activity, as is the case during solar minimum, but now we’re ramping up and ramping up quite fast into the next solar cycle maximum, which we expect in 2025”, Bill Murtagh, a programme coordinator at the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told Space.
Several major geomagnetic storms hit Earth in early November, shortly after Halloween, and they are regarded by scientists as indicators of the current stage of the Sun’s cycle.
“We’re seeing the increase in activity that one would expect with this rise in the solar cycle”, Murtagh said. “This is kind of our awakening phase”.
Such storms originate in what is known as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs. They are bunches of solar material – essentially clouds of plasma gas with magnetic fields – that are burst out by the Sun from time to time. These clouds do not always combine well with the Earth’s magnetic fields, which is what causes geomagnetic storms.
Sometimes CMEs can grow as they travel from the Sun to the Earth – something that space researchers call “cannibalising”.
The size of a CME and the way interacts with the planet’s magnetic field determines the effect of the resulting geomagnetic storm, and if the CME is big enough, the consequences can be worrying.
In part, they can affect essential infrastructures on Earth, such as satellite networks, power grids, and aeroplane communication systems. But the outcome of a solar storm strong enough could even lead to what was described in one study as an “Internet apocalypse” that could keep a major part of humanity offline for weeks or even months.
“Since CMEs often originate in magnetically active regions near sunspots, a larger number of sunspots will increase the probability of a powerful CME. If this estimate proves accurate, it will also significantly increase the probability of a large-scale event in this decade”, Sangeetha Abdu Jyothi from the University of California, Irvine and VMware Research said.