HAP Blog

What is Going On in Outer Space?

Weather phenomena are fun to watch, but should get you thinking about preparedness

June 14, 2024

Were you one of the lucky ones to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis (a.k.a Northern Lights) that have been making their presence felt lately in areas of the country that don’t typically see these?

Usually, areas far north of Pennsylvania, such as Iceland and Nova Scotia, have the view, or even as far south as Florida and Texas, as we saw recently. As beautiful and mesmerizing as the Northern Lights are, when we see them in our areas, it can have some negative effects, especially on vital areas of infrastructure we so much rely on, especially in health care.

What you should know

So, let’s take some time and explain the science behind these and why these are occurring now.

The aurora borealis is a dancing ribbon of lights created when energized particles from the sun slam into Earth's uppermost atmosphere. Our planet's magnetic field protects us from the brunt of the impact of the particles as it redirects them toward the poles. As a result of this occurring in the atmosphere, we are left with these dazzling light displays.

Before we even get to seeing the aurora, we need an event to occur and that is typically a solar flare. However, before an event, we need a source, and that will be a sunspot, which is a darker area seen on the sun which is an area of solar activity.

Solar flares are categorized as a class. The smallest is a B-class, then C, M, and X being the largest. These solar flares eventually can lead to a coronal mass ejection or CME, which occurs on the sun. These CMEs are large explosions of solar material that eventually make their way to Earth, which is when we get the auroras. Think of thunderstorms here on Earth. We need a low-pressure or a storm front as the source, then we need an event to occur in the clouds and atmosphere. The result is thunder and lightning.

Solar activity is nothing new as we have been going through solar cycles since the beginning of time. Currently, we are in solar cycle 25 which just began December 2019. A solar cycle typically lasts for about 11 years (there were other names before solar cycle). This solar cycle period we are currently in is expected to peak with solar activity sometime in 2025, so we will likely continue to see these events, and it may get worse.

What’s the potential impact?

So, remember when I said that they are beautiful to watch auroras dance across the sky? This actually is due to a rather violent event that can have negative impacts despite our magnetic field in many cases doing its job. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) puts out quite a bit of information about space weather such as forecasts and potential impacts. One section to pay attention to is the space weather scales, which measure the magnitude of the result of a solar event and the potential impacts we may face on Earth. There are three main observations.: G-scale, S-scale, and R-scale. Each of these scales is from a range of 1–5; 1 being minor and 5 being extreme. The G-scale is looking specifically at geomagnetic storms. With the recent solar activity, we saw a few weeks ago you may have seen a G4 and even G5 being thrown around the media. That is because these are rare to hear. This was the first G5 impact going back to October 2003. The next scale is the S-scale, which is solar radiation storms. The third is the R-scale, which is radio blackouts.

A strong G-scale storm could have negative impact to us on Earth. When we get into the G4 and G5 range, these storms could be detrimental. When the radiation reaches the magnetic sphere around our planet, it causes fluctuations in the ionosphere. Communication is one of the biggest pieces that can be impacted.

Due to many radio frequencies traveling high up in the ionosphere, the disruptions could affect critical technologies used by planes, ships, and even shortwave radio transmissions used by aircraft, hospitals, emergency managers, and ham radio operators.

Things such as GPS can also be impacted as we rely on satellites to transmit the data to our devices. These signals need to travel through the ionosphere to reach the satellites so they could be disrupted. The good news is that cell phones operate on different radio frequencies than the high-frequency bands, so they won’t be impacted. GPS on phones is less likely to be impacted as they use a mix of pure GPS and cell town-based location tracking. 

Power grids also can be impacted. When we hit the severe and extreme level of a G-scale storm, we can experience widespread control problems resulting in a complete collapse or blackouts. We may also see transformer issues as well. In 1989 in Canada, there was a major blackout because of a space weather event that caused a massive blackout for more than nine hours. The largest impact is known as the Carrington event of 1859 which caused telegraph stations to spark and catch fire. Now, we are quite a bit more advanced than we were in 1859, however, blackout and electrical grid issues can still occur, especially with an aging infrastructure.

What Can I do?

Peace always comes down to simply being prepared. At home, this means having the essential items to be prepared for power loss. In the health care setting, you should have up-to-date plans to operate with a possible extended power loss or loss of communications. Ensure you have redundancies and test that those redundancies are operational for when you need them. It also does not hurt to pay a little closer attention to space weather.

Hopefully, this gives you a base understanding of what you’re looking at when you click on NOAA’s space weather prediction center website. For questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.

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