Space Weather Watchers Warn of Geomagnetic Storms
GOLDEN, Colorado, January 3, 2000 (ENS) - Geomagnetic storms that could cause power blackouts, disruptions in communications and satellite failures are predicted for early this year, according the U.S. Geological Survey, the United States agency primarily responsible for tracking geomagnetic activity.
It is geomagnetic storms that produce beautiful Northern lights, but they can also pose a serious threat for commercial and military satellite operators, power companies, astronauts, and they can even shorten the life of oil pipelines in Alaska by increasing pipeline corrosion, the USGS warns.
Earth’s magnetic field can undergo large and rapid fluctuations due to the interaction of charged particles ejected by the Sun that collide with the geomagnetic field. These solar ejections, traveling at more than a million miles an hour, are associated with sunspots which increase and decrease over an 11 year cycle. The number of geomagnetic storms also increases and decreases in concert with that 11 year cycle.
The last great magnetic storm occurred exactly 11 years ago this coming March 13 at 3 am EST. That storm caused the collapse of the Hydro-Quebec power system in Canada, leaving about six million people without power. If the storm had struck a few hours later than it did, the blackout would likely have been much worse because of the heavier power consumption during daytime hours.
The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) produces daily forecasts on the likelihood of a major solar flare. These predictions are charted on the NASA Spaceweather website: http://www.spaceweather.com/
NASA said today the Earth's magnetic field, "remains unsettled in response to a high speed solar wind stream." The source of the solar wind, a large coronal hole, has rotated past the sun's central meridian. As a result the disturbances should begin to subside today and tomorrow, NASA observers said.
"The sun's been doing this for a long, long time," said Dr. David Hathaway, solar physics group leader at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. And even though the sun is climbing towards the peak of yet another sunspot cycle maximum, "This cycle is a little different from what we've seen, but not out of the ordinary. For us on Earth it's going to be life as usual.
"The big difference for us is our increasing dependence on technology in general and on space-based technology in particular. Certainly it's not going to wipe out the planet although it may affect a satellite or two," Hathaway said.
The geomagnetic data are also shared with agencies comparable to the USGS in other countries including Canada, Japan, France, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and others as part of an international organization called INTERMAGNET. These agencies also share their information with the USGS.
Data at various Geomagnetic Information Nodes are received via the GOES-East and GOES-West satellites (United States and Canada); METEOSAT (Edinburgh and Paris); and GMS (Japan).
The data are made available on the Internet at: http://geomag.usgs.gov and by email request from the website.
The USGS produces models of the Earth’s magnetic field that are used in military and civilian navigational systems and in research for studies of the effects of geomagnetic storms on the ionosphere, atmosphere, and near-space environment.