The sun just fired off a massive Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) from a sunspot pointed directly at the Earth. These solar events are common but the strength and positioning of this particular burst are set to affect the Earth more than usual. The sun is a volatile being that frequently shoots matter and radiation into space at regular intervals. Most of the time, these streams fly harmlessly off into the empty void. Since the Earth orbits on a single plane, being caught in one of these ejections is not super common. Many of these flares are mild in strength but the one detected this week was categorized an X strength eruption - the strongest possible designation.
The CME was classified as an X1 by NASA. X is the strongest level of ejection but one is the weakest intensity in that upper tier. While the flare should pose no threat to living people on the ground, the massive radiation stream could cause secondary effects that will be potentially seen and felt by millions of people.
The energy from the solar flare is expected to reach Earth on October 31st, Halloween.
One of the most widespread effects of a direct hit from a coronal mass ejection is power outages. Modern power grids are sensitive to increased radiation from space and are sometimes severely affected by geomagnetic storms that occur when a solar flare hits the Earth's magnetosphere.
One of the most potent examples of this effect happened in 1989 when an unusually powerful solar flare caused the entire province of Quebec to lose power for nine hours. The storm knocked the main grid offline and it took officials hours to restore power to the affected population.
It is impossible to say whether or not this particular ejection will cause power outages in any particular region but it could. If the power goes out this Halloween it is probably not monsters but simply an interaction with our sun.
GPS and cellular disruption
The first human-made objects to experience the energy from the incoming solar flare will be satellites in orbit. Satellites are small, lightly shielded, and house a nest of sensitive electronics. A particularly potent burst of solar energy can briefly scramble the electronics in satellites. A satellite that responds poorly to this radiation will be unable to communicate with nearby satellites or towers on the ground. This could cause glitches and interruptions to cellular service and GPS during this period. It could cause some calls to drop and leave others unable to accurately plot a route using GPS on their phones.
Human radio waves travel along similar pathways as solar radiation leaving them vulnerable to solar events like the one due to take place tomorrow. The initial burst already disrupted radio communication across South America this week. The solar flare could cause more static to appear over the airwaves, especially on HAM radios. If your favorite station goes out in the middle of the Monster Mash this Halloween, it could be because of the coronal mass ejection.
Increased coverage of Northern Lights
The best and most visible side effect of the approaching solar flare is going to be a spectacular display of the Northern Lights. These haunting lights that dance across the sky at night will be juiced by the injection of a ton of new solar radiation leading to brighter and more widespread occurrences. Usually, the Northern Lights are a phenomenon only visible at the highest latitudes but will be visible by far more people than usual this Sunday.
NOAA has predicted an appearance of the aurora borealis as far south as Oregon, New York, Michigan,, and Idaho. Northern European countries such as Scotland, Iceland and Norway are due to receive a special Halloween treat as the lights extend much farther south than usual. The Northern Lights are going to make for a spectacular Halloween showcase for some and are sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. The odds of getting another widespread aurora borealis on Halloween night are extremely low.
If you are curious about your potential exposure check out this neat tool provided by NOAA that forecasts the areas where the aurora borealis will be the strongest. Keep an eye on it this weekend as the solar flare approaches Earth's atmosphere.
Anyone living in one of the areas expected to receive this natural light show is encouraged to go outside and try to catch a glimpse after the sun goes down on Sunday.