One of the strongest geomagnetic storms in almost 30 years hit the Earth on Wednesday, and MU assistant professor of astronomy Angela Speck doesn’t know why. The solar activity that brings this type of storm usually climaxes every 11 years, she explained, meaning the cyclical peak for solar flares should have been three years ago.
“This is not supposed to be happening,” Speck said.
Catching weather forecasters by surprise, the stream of highly charged particles spewing from the sun poses a threat to satellite communications throughout the world. The extra ionized particles in the atmosphere created by the storm, Speck said, could interfere with communication signals heading out to space.
“It disrupts the order of things,” she explained.
On the bright side, however, the storm brought the green and red hues of the Northern Lights, also known as the aurora borealis, to the Wednesday night sky. The colorful auroras, normally restricted to extreme northern climates, were forecast to reach as far south as Florida and Texas.
The storm is rated a G5, the most severe for space weather. Solar storms occur when the protective magnetic bubble surrounding the Earth is buffeted by huge magnetic fields and streams of energy torn from the surface of the sun. Such solar explosions are unimaginably violent; they can carry the power of 40 billion atom bombs and travel through space at speeds of 3 million miles per hour.
Tuesday’s solar flare was the third largest recorded since 1976, said John Kohl, a solar astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.
“This one is aimed right at Earth, and it’s the largest Earth-directed event we’ve ever seen,” Kohl said. “This is the real thing.”
Companies that rely on satellite technology have taken precautions in many cases. Kurt Kiser, a spokesman for Sprint, said the cellular phone company is on high alert for 48 hours, which began Wednesday at 6 p.m. However, the company expects nothing more than short interruptions in phone calls.
“We don’t anticipate any major problems,” Kiser said.
Jade Valine, a spokeswoman for DirecTV, said the satellite TV company has received no complaints from customers and experienced no technical problems. She explained that DirecTV for the past 10 years has used satellites that are designed to withstand electromagnetic transience.
Speck said that once the storm’s ionized particles hit Earth, they flow to either the north or south poles. The red-and-green coloration that follows is the result of electrons “trying to lose” the energy they gained entering the atmosphere.
While standing on the roof of the Physics Building at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Central Missouri Astronomy Association Chairman Val Green marveled at the hazy green band that extended across the northern hemisphere. The earliest he had ever seen the northern lights before this was more than twenty years ago, and that was at about 9 p.m.
“This is really something,” Germann said.
Speck said the best places for Columbians to view the northern lights are away from the artificial lights of the city.
“It’s best to get out of town to see the lights,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.