As meteorologists continue their fight against Mother Nature in hopes to produce the ”perfect” forecast, they may encounter some unusual problems outside of our atmosphere. Although outer space does not have an immediate or direct impact on the weather on Earth, space phenomena do have the ability to influence or disrupt the way meteorologists or the general public goes about their daily lives.
According to Earthsky blog writer, Christopher Crockett, Coronal Mass Ejections or CME’s are essentially “sun burps with the power of 20 million nuclear bombs”. Although these burps or hiccups are not totally understood, astronomers believe they are caused by twists or “kinks” in the Sun’s magnetic field, much like a phone cord or toy slinky. “These kinks snap the magnetic field and can potentially drive vast amounts of plasma into space” (Crockett). When the plasma is ejected into space it travels at a million miles per hour, that speed could get you from Boston to London in less than 30 minutes!
Since these explosions are angled at all different directions, they don’t always reach the Earth. However when they do come into contact with the Earth, a geomagnetic storm occurs. This means that the Earth’s magnetic field is temporarily altered as the day side of the magnetic field is compressed and the night side is stretched out. When this happens, the aurora lights can drift towards the mid-latitudes and display a magnificent natural light show.
The effects of CME’s are not always positive though; they can cause widespread power outages and sometimes even become deadly. Cosmic rays, which are very-high energy particles, can infiltrate the earth’s atmosphere and expose people to these deadly levels of radiation. This risk is elevated for those further away from the Earth’s surface such as astronauts or people in planes. For example, during a solar storm in 1989, astronauts aboard the Mir space station received their yearly radiation dose in just a few hours.
Lastly, the flurry of magnetic activity and induced electric currents can disrupt radio transmissions and cause damage to satellites and electrical transmission line facilities. This can severely disrupt power grids and communication networks, leaving millions of people without power.
Just like the weather on Earth, there is nothing we can do to prevent CME’s other than forecast and prepare for these events. In fact, NASA is predicting that we could see a very large CME this year, however they are urging people not to freak out and go on with their daily lives.