(WGHP) — A powerful geomagnetic storm coming from the Sun is likely to impact North Carolina in the next few years as eruptions become more frequent, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Every 11 years, the Sun goes through a solar cycle where the magnetic field completely flips. The north and south poles switch places, and it takes around 11 years for the poles to switch back.
Space weather forecasters call the least active portion of the solar cycle at the beginning solar minimum and the most active portion towards the middle solar maximum. Solar minimum began in 2019.
“Now we’re ramping up to the next maximum,” said NOAA Program Coordinator William Murtagh. “We are absolutely going to see more activity in the coming months and years. The last year, we’ve seen a considerable ramp up in activity and significant increase in sunspots. That will continue for the next five/six years.”
During the transition from solar minimum to maximum, the Sun creates more sunspots and is more likely to release huge eruptions such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections.
“When we see sunspots…we know we’re going to get activity,” Murtagh said.
These massive eruptions can dazzle skywatchers on Earth with auroras but also cause problems with GPS, radio, satellites and, in the most extreme cases, knock out power grids.
The NOAA ranks solar storms on a G1 to G5 scale with G1 being minor and G5 being an extreme event. A G5 storm has the potential to cause widespread blackouts.
“When we hit the four and five, that’s when we start seeing some problems,” Murtagh said.
Space weather forecasters are preparing for a G5 storm, and we could possibly see one as soon as next month or next year, according to Murtagh. It all depends on how the already over-active solar cycle plays out.
“These big storms do occur once or twice per 11-year cycle,” Murtagh said. “They can and will cause impacts to the power grid. Our big concern…is that we get one of the extreme events…and the potential for that to cause a widespread blackout in the United States.”
NOAA officials work with Duke Energy in the Piedmont Triad to make sure our power grid can withstand any expected minor and massive solar storms.
“We work closely with Duke Energy…they are colleagues in North Carolina,” Murtagh said. “You are in a vulnerable area to a big storm.”
The most intense geomagnetic storm in recorded history happened in September 1859 and is called the Carrington Event. It created auroras that were reported across the globe and caused telegram stations all over the United States and Europe to fail. Some telegram stations even caught fire.
“That threat and knowledge that can happen and will happen again motivated the White House to issue an executive order in October of 2016 and again in 2019…to address space weather,” Murtagh said. “For our nation to build resilience against this threat.”
Researchers observed a “Carrington class,” solar superstorm in 2012 that did not hit the Earth. However, in March 1989 and October 2003, powerful G5 eruptions from the Sun created significant problems on Earth such as communication blackouts and a massive power outage in Canada.
In 1989, satellites near the poles lost control for hours, and weather satellites malfunctioned, which resulted in weather data being disrupted. The space shuttle Discovery was in orbit at the time and had a sensor malfunction.
“We felt the impacts all the way down the east coast, including North Carolina, and into northern California,” Murtagh said.
The G5 storm caused “significant impacts” to a Virginia-based power grid, according to Murtagh.
In 2003, during the Halloween solar storms, numerous satellites were affected, Sweden lost power and astronauts aboard the International Space Station retreated to shielded sections of the station to protect themselves from the increased levels of radiation.
Auroras could be seen as far south as Texas and Florida in 1989 and 2003 and in Cuba as well. A G5 storm would be capable of producing an aurora in NC, according to Murtagh.
On Oct. 21, 2020, the PROSWIFT space weather bill was signed into law after passing the House and Senate. The bill was designed to help the US forecast dangerous space weather events and lessen the effect when a solar storm hits the Earth.
“It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when,” Murtagh said.