Warning: Severe geomagnetic storm can affect phones, internet and power grids

The National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) has issued a “severe geomagnetic storm watch,” the first such watch to be released in nearly 20 years.

The biggest solar storm in two decades could knock out GPS satellites and power grids today, space weather forecasters have warned.

According to the SWPC, this is the first watch issued by the department since January 2005.

The watch comes after multiple earth-bound coronal mass ejections (CMEs) were observed by forecasters this week.

At least five CMEs have been observed in recent days, and the particles may begin arriving at Earth by Friday afternoon, according to officials.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) also warned that a strong geomagnetic storm could cause power outages, causing GPS and communications disruptions in Australia this weekend.

The bureau’s Australian Space Weather Prediction Center said a G4 storm – the second highest classification – could potentially disrupt critical infrastructure “such as power grids, causing power outages”.

“Satellite services affecting communications and global position, navigation and weather services that use high frequency radio communication” may also be affected.

CMEs are expected to continue arriving through Sunday, marking an “unusual event.”

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Only three “severe” geomagnetic storms have been observed since the start of the current solar cycle in December 2019. The last G4 storm hit Earth in March, and the last G5 storm hit in October 2003, causing power outages in Sweden, according to the SWPC.

CMEs are “large plasma ejections and magnetized particles from the Sun’s corona,” according to the SWPC.

These ejections can increase in size as they approach Earth and can cause geomagnetic storms when they arrive.

In a geomagnetic storm, particles ejected from the sun cause disturbances in the Earth’s magnetosphere. Particularly strong storms can affect Earth’s ionosphere, adding energy in the form of heat that can “increase the density and density distribution in the upper atmosphere, causing additional drag on satellites in low Earth orbit.” according to SWPC.

As a result, disruptions to navigation systems, radio communications and power grids are possible, although it is unclear whether the approaching storm will be strong enough to cause these impacts.

Shortwave radio outages have been seen in parts of the world, including Australia. credit: NOAA/SWPC

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it was “monitoring the sun following a series of solar flares and coronal mass ejections that began on May 8.”

The agency added: “This could affect infrastructure in Earth orbit and on the Earth’s surface” and “potentially communications, power grid, navigation, radio and satellite operations.”

Another potential impact that could occur is a much more vibrant Northern Lights show that could be seen as far south as Tennessee or even Alabama late Friday and into Saturday. according to officials.

In addition, space weather forecasts can change dramatically in a matter of hours, with officials providing additional updates as the weekend approaches.

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