Weekend geomagnetic storm: Experts can discuss potential US impacts

May 10, 2024
Concept illustration of solar eruptions. Image credit: Nicole Smith, made with Midjourney


A severe geomagnetic storm watch beginning this evening and continuing through the weekend has been issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—the first since 2005.

The storm watch is the result of five coronal mass ejections, bundles of plasma and magnetic field, that launched toward Earth from the sun. They could be strong enough to disrupt Earth’s magnetic field, potentially moving aurora further south than usual and disrupting radio and GPS communications.

University of Michigan researchers developed the space weather model used by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center and experts on the sun, aurora and Earth’s magnetic field are available to discuss geomagnetic storms and how a severe one could impact the U.S. this weekend.

Michael Liemohn is a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering who studies the aurora. He can comment on how the geomagnetic storm’s severity can affect the intensity and location of the northern and southern lights, and can provide tips for seeing the aurora this weekend. Liemohn leads NASA’s Magnetospheric Auroral Asymmetry Explorer (MAAX) mission concept study, which would be two spacecraft to simultaneously view the northern and southern auroral zones. MAAX aims to improve predictions of where the aurora will form and how energy from geomagnetic storms could increase atmospheric drag on satellites, potentially causing them to fall out of orbit.

“As of this afternoon, the magnetic storm has already begun and it’s looking like it could be a strong one. A severe storm would mean that the aurora will likely be visible in southern Michigan,” Liemohn said. “Get away from city lights to a place with clear skies and you should be able to see the green or red glow of aurora across the sky.”

Contact: liemohn@umich.edu

Daniel Welling is an assistant professor of climate and space sciences and engineering who studies how the Earth’s magnetic field can be perturbed by the sun, causing technology disruptions in addition to aurora. He can comment on the likelihood that a geomagnetic storm could disrupt communications and the science behind predicting a coronal mass ejection’s impact on Earth.

“More than any storm we have yet seen in this active phase of the sun’s 11-year cycle, this storm has the potential to cause disruptions to radio communication and GPS accuracy,” Daniel said. “There is still a lot of uncertainty about the impacts because the magnetic field polarity greatly dictates the storm’s ability to drive effects at Earth, and we do not yet have direct observations of the coronal mass ejections’ magnetic fields. But, given the multiple strong CMEs, we should be paying attention to this event.”

Contact: dwelling@umich.edu

Mojtaba Akhavan-Tafti is an assistant research scientist who specializes in studying the sun’s ionized gas, or plasma, and its associated magnetic fields. He can comment on how coronal mass ejections are monitored and how forecasts of solar activity can be improved.

“We currently have the know-how to vastly improve our solar activity detection and prediction capabilities, but we need Congress to approve funding to develop more infrastructure for real-time monitoring of space weather,” he said. “At the University of Michigan, we are helping to plan future space missions, such as the Space Weather Investigation Frontier, that aim to further our understanding of how and when the sun can impact Earth, while significantly enhancing our prediction lead times.”

Contact: khavant@umich.edu