Today, January 22, a blob of superhot particles ejected by the sun began glancing off the North Pole, kicking off a minor geomagnetic storm that is predicted to peak tomorrow. This space weather event has lit the Alaskan sky tonight and has given the newspapers something to write about besides the Presidential primaries, but is considered a minor G1 storm (may cause small fluctuations in power grids). Much more severe G5 storms (extreme, causing power grids and communications to fail) are possible and could be disastrous, causing extensive economic damage.
This damage occurs because the surge of charged particles – sort of a gust in the solar wind – shifts the earth’s magnetic field. The shifting magnetic field induces an electrical current to flow in any long wire or length of pipe. The resulting surge in electricity can overload powergrids, damage pipelines, and harm telecommunications equipment – which is why NOAA tracks geomagnetic storms just like it tracks hurricanes.
This particular coronal mass ejection (CME, a burst of superhot particles, or plasma, erupting from a sunspot) is occurring as the 11-year solar cycle approaches its maximum in 2013. While this increasing activity does increase the risk of geomagnetic storms and the attendant damage, it does have some benefits in addition to the Northern Lights: the charged particles increase the density of the upper atmosphere, dragging space debris out of orbit (see p4). To the delight of amateur radio operators, these particles also increase the reflectivity of the atmosphere, allowing high frequency radios to reach greater distances.
Add this to the list of reasons to get your Ham license this year,