On Tuesday, several people across the United States and Europe were able to witness breathtaking auroras in the sky, post-sunset. This miraculous sight was fueled by an intense geomagnetic storm which continues to echo in the Earth’s magnetic field even now. Generally, bright and clear auroras are sighted close to the poles i.e. in areas like Alaska or Iceland. But Tuesday was different as residents of Illinois, New York, and even Kansas were able to view the magical display of aurora borealis or northern lights.
On Sunday, March 15, the Sun shot off two huge coronal mass ejections (CME) which hit the Earth’s magnetic field on Tuesday. CME are quick-paced moving clouds of charged particles which bump into gas atoms in Earth’s atmosphere and emit light. The color of the lights depends on the type of the gas atom. Tuesday’s events caused a G-4 scale geomagnetic storm which happened to be the strongest solar storm since 2013.
Auroras as a natural phenomenon occur when solar activity on the surface of the Sun creates ‘sun spots’ which fire a part of the Sun’s upper atmosphere into space. These are fast paced charged particles which are then deflected by the Earth’s magnetic field. However, a portion of these charged particles ram into gas atoms on our planet shedding out a wave of majestic colors.
Besides giving birth to visual treats which leave us simply dazzled, these auroras can also disrupt electric grids and cause satellite communications to function improperly. In fact, a strong geomagnetic storm can prove to be catastrophic in nature. An intense solar eruption can seriously damage power grids, render satellites powerless, and affect millions on the planet. Earth escaped a similar strike from a geomagnetic storm back in July, 2012.