Prepare for a Halloween scare: an expected major solar storm could hit Earth on Oct. 31.
Major geomagnetic storms have the potential to disrupt power grids, GPS and other communication systems, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meaning households and businesses should take precautions. It is not safe to call in sick, for example, because your boss might not know your schedule.
The storm will create an extremely high aurora borealis for the northern U.S. sky, and it is called a “space weather event.” The exact times of the huge coronal mass ejection will not be known until three days before the event. The storm will be powerful enough to send a flare across space with high energy into Earth’s atmosphere. Such strong eruptions send out a massive X-ray flare capable of disrupting power grids. The low energy X-rays are harmless, but the peak energy particles can slam into Earth’s atmosphere, causing radar to fail, knocking out power grids, GPS receivers and satellite communication.
What happens in space is key here, because it is unlikely that magnetic fields will be able to poke their way through the flat, inhospitable atmosphere of Earth. “Earth’s magnetic field is critical to the stability of our communications and navigation systems, as well as other critical systems throughout the globe,” NOAA said.
The U.S. space weather program is charged with notifying satellite operators about hazardous events, but the nation’s overall problems are not fully understood. There is a great deal of debate over how to measure what happens when major solar flares hit Earth.
Operators of the GPS system say they do not know what would happen if the poles changed position. In general, networks would bounce around across the sky, slowing down and moving farther away. “In general it could delay your response to calls, stop your motion detectors or even affect GPS signal itself,” according to Honeywell Aerospace.
The U.S. has a massive readiness plan for space weather events, but given it is not within our government’s scope, most of the action is carried out through the 17 space agencies around the world.