‘Cannibal’ coronal mass ejection from the sun will smash into Earth TODAY – and could spark geomagnetic storms and trigger power outages, scientists warn
- Multiple solar storms and ‘dark eruption’ led to the formation of ‘cannibal’ cloud
- This ejection of gas is fairly rare and could spark geomagnetic storms on Earth
It’s pretty common for Earth to be struck by coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that have erupted from the sun.
But what is less familiar to scientists is the terrifyingly-named ‘cannibal’ ejection of energetic and highly magnetised gas, which is exactly what is currently on a collision course with our planet.
Having originated from multiple solar storms and an unusual ‘dark eruption’, there are fears the cannibal CME could spark a weak geomagnetic storm when it hits Earth today (Tuesday).
Although this is unlikely to significantly affect our electronic systems, satellites, or power grids, scientists have warned there is the possibility of minor outages and blackouts.
Sean Elvidge, an associate professor of space environment at the University of Birmingham, told MailOnline: ‘These storms manifest as major disturbances in Earth’s magnetic field, potentially causing various space weather effects.
Warning: A ‘cannibal’ coronal mass ejection from the sun will smash into Earth today, potentially triggering a geomagnetic storm. Pictured is the eruption of a CME which was then swept up by a second, faster ejection to form a ‘cannibal’ cloud headed for our planet
WHAT ARE CORONAL MASS EJECTIONS?
Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun.
These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing through solar wind.
These clouds only cause impacts to Earth when they’re aimed at Earth.
They tend to be much slower than solar flares, as they move a greater amount of matter.
CMEs can be triggered when a storm on the surface of the sun causes a whirlwind to form at the base of plasma loops that project from the surface.
These loops are called prominences and when they become unstable they can break, releasing the CME into space.
‘On one hand, they can result in radio blackouts, disrupting communication systems on our planet. On the other hand, these storms can produce awe-inspiring displays of natural beauty known as auroras.’
Essentially, a ‘cannibal’ CME is formed when an initial ejection is followed by a second faster one which catches up to the first and sweeps it up to create an enormous wave of plasma.
‘This can lead to significant consequences both in space and here on Earth,’ Dr Elvidge added.
‘The collision of CMEs serves as a reminder of the sun’s immense power and its potential impact on our technological infrastructure and society.’
Four days ago a so-called ‘dark eruption’ – named because the solar flare contains unusually cool plasma which makes it looks darker in comparison to the sun’s surface – was launched alongside a CME.
Then, 24 hours later, a second, faster CME erupted from a separate, much bigger sunspot.
It was this speedier CME that then caught up with the previous one and led to the creation of a cannibalistic cloud which is forecast to hit us later.
The Space Weather arm of the Met Office said ‘Unsettled to Active geomagnetic activity is likely at first’, with a chance of minor geomagnetic storms.
This prediction was echoed by the US-based Space Weather Prediction Center, which created a simulation showing that the cannibal CME is due to strike us today.
Essentially, a ‘cannibal’ CME is formed when an initial ejection is followed by a second faster one which catches up to the first and sweeps it up to create an enormous wave of plasma (depicted above)
Solar activity: Four days ago a so-called ‘dark eruption’ was launched alongside a CME. Then, 24 hours later, a second, faster CME erupted from a separate, much bigger sunspot (pictured)
CATEGORIES OF GEOMAGNETIC STORMS
Such impacts are pretty rare because they require successive CMEs that have to be travelling at specific speeds and be perfectly aligned with one another.
However, one hit just two years ago and sparked a major geomagnetic storm.
These storms are categorised according to the G-scale.
What is forecast to be triggered today is the weakest kind, or G-1, which can cause weak power grid fluctuations and have a minor impact on satellite operations.
G-2 is moderate, G-3 is strong – where false alarms may be triggered on some protection devices – and G-4 is severe.
A G-5 geomagnetic storm is the most serious. Labelled ‘extreme’, it can spark blackouts, damage transformers and make it difficult to control satellites in low-Earth orbit.
Although they’re rare, cannibal CMEs are seen in increasing numbers as the sun reaches the peak of its 11-year solar cycle – the next of which is due in 2025.
This is because the sun’s magnetic field becomes more and more unstable, which in turn increases the number of sunspots that CMEs can erupt from.
It had been thought that the 2025 peak would be weaker than past solar maximums, although recent research suggests otherwise – and that it could arrive sooner than two years’ time.
Calculations: The US-based Space Weather Prediction Center created a simulation showing the cannibal CME heading for our planet
SOLAR STORMS PRESENT A CLEAR DANGER TO ASTRONAUTS AND CAN DAMAGE SATELLITES
Solar storms, or solar activity, can be divided into four main components that can have impacts on Earth:
- Solar flares: A large explosion in the sun’s atmosphere. These flares are made of photons that travel out directly from the flare site. Solar flares impact Earth only when they occur on the side of the sun facing Earth.
- Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s): Large clouds of plasma and magnetic field that erupt from the sun. These clouds can erupt in any direction, and then continue on in that direction, plowing through solar wind. These clouds only cause impacts to Earth when they’re aimed at Earth.
- High-speed solar wind streams: These come from coronal holes on the sun, which form anywhere on the sun and usually only when they are closer to the solar equator do the winds impact Earth.
- Solar energetic particles: High-energy charged particles thought to be released primarily by shocks formed at the front of coronal mass ejections and solar flares. When a CME cloud plows through solar wind, solar energetic particles can be produced and because they are charged, they follow the magnetic field lines between the Sun and Earth. Only charged particles that follow magnetic field lines that intersect Earth will have an impact.
While these may seem dangerous, astronauts are not in immediate danger of these phenomena because of the relatively low orbit of manned missions.
However, they do have to be concerned about cumulative exposure during space walks.
This photo shows the sun’s coronal holes in an x-ray image. The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields, which when closed can cause the atmosphere to suddenly and violently release bubbles or tongues of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections
The damage caused by solar storms
Solar flares can damage satellites and have an enormous financial cost.
The charged particles can also threaten airlines by disturbing Earth’s magnetic field.
Very large flares can even create currents within electricity grids and knock out energy supplies.
When Coronal Mass Ejections strike Earth they cause geomagnetic storms and enhanced aurora.
They can disrupt radio waves, GPS coordinates and overload electrical systems.
A large influx of energy could flow into high voltage power grids and permanently damage transformers.
This could shut off businesses and homes around the world.
Source: NASA – Solar Storm and Space Weather
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