northern lights
Bob Martinson/AP
The northern lights, which are caused by storms in space, hover over the Knik River near
Palmer, Alaska.

Strong Geomagnetic Storm Hits Earth Ahead of Forecast

April 06, 2010 06:30 PM
by Emily Coakley
The strongest space storm to hit Earth in more than three years arrived on Monday, a day earlier than scientists predicted, despite recent advances in outer space weather forecasting.

The Making of a Space Storm

On April 3, NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory detected a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun. Based on the speed of the discharged particles, scientists estimated it would hit Earth in about three days, Rachel Courtland reported for New Scientist.

According to Doug Biesecker of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center, “It hit earlier and harder than forecast.”

Although it packed more power than forecast, the storm was not strong enough to disrupt the function of satellites and power grids.

“Such storms highlight the uncertainty in the arrival times of CMEs, which can easily be 15 hours off predictions, Biesecker says," Courtland reported. "Better modelling of the solar wind, which can accelerate CMEs en route to Earth, could reduce the uncertainty.”

Electrical Storm Above Causes Lights Below

Last year, researchers successfully determined where a storm that started in space would hit the Earth’s atmosphere, reported.

The BBC explained the significance of such predictions: “This would provide more time to power down satellites and electrical grids, which can be damaged by these storms.”
To make the prediction, researchers in 2007 watched the earth's magnetic field while NASA satellites kept an eye on a brewing space storm. They saw magnetic tremors spread through the atmosphere and result in light displays a few minutes later, the BBC reported.

"In the future, we should be able to predict space weather in the same way that we now can predict long-term weather forecasts [on Earth]," the University of Alberta's Jonathan Rae said in a BBC interview.

Background: Storms in space

In 2006, researchers announced that a NASA telescope called Spitzer had found a spiral of high-energy particles coming from a star. The stream of particles was a phenomenon well known to astronomers called Herbig-Haro objects.

The objects take shape "when highly energized particles—usually electrons and protons—are ejected from a young star and collide with nearby clouds of interstellar dust and gas," according to

Particle streams, though, aren't usually spirals. One of the theories, reported, is "magnetic fields in the region are somehow twisting the particle jets."

Some astronomers have suggested that the shockwaves created by the jet of particles moving through the clouds "are creating eddies in the dust clouds which then glow and become visible."

The sun also has tornadoes, the European Space Agency announced in 1998. The tornadoes were observed by SOHO, a spacecraft studying the sun.

"They occur most frequently near the north and south poles of the Sun and are almost as wide as the Earth," the agency said in a news release. SOHO’s mission includes learning more about how the sun produces wind.

"Gusts and shocks in the solar wind buffet the Earth’s environment, causing auroras and magnetic storms and endangering satellites and power supplies," the release said.

It’s possible the solar tornadoes "may contribute to the solar wind, especially to a fast windstream that emanates from relatively cool parts of the solar atmosphere called coronal holes."

Related Topic: Storms cause northern lights

According to the Times of London, researchers have discovered that the northern lights "are powered by giant electrical tornadoes spinning at more than a million miles an hour and stretching thousands of miles into space."

"What we see as beautiful lights and colours are actually the product of a violent electrical storm in space," said Andreas Keiling, a University of California at Berkeley physicist, in an interview with the newspaper.

Five satellites helped the research team examine the earth’s magnetic field, which traps particles from the sun. Those particles move from the side of the planet where the sun is shining, called the day side, to the part of the earth that is dark, called the night side. There the particles sit together in huge clouds.

While this particular mystery surrounding the northern lights may be figured out, there is still plenty to investigate. In November, ScienceDaily reported on plans to launch a rocket through the northern lights to investigate radio interference. When the northern lights are particularly active, ScienceDaily explains, airplanes flying polar routes can lose radio communication "for several hours."

The rocket was going to be launched in late November or early December from Svalbard, a Norwegian island that is in total darkness for four months a year. Svalbard is also the place where the Kjell Henriksen Observatory opened in May. The new observatory is studying the northern lights.

"When the charge contained in the cloud becomes too great, it becomes unstable and generates the whirlwinds whose tips hurtle earthwards," the Times explained.

Reference: Astronomy


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