October 30, 2013
Recalling The 2003 Nightmare Halloween Magnetic Storm
[ Watch the Video: Is There Space Weather In Store For Trick-Or-Treaters? ]
Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe OnlineAs Halloween approaches, most people are thinking about costume parties, tricks and treats, haunted hayrides and perhaps a rogue werewolf running amok. But for scientists, this October 31 may provide a scare much different from what most kids get when they go Trick-or-Treating this All Hallow's Eve.
The NOAA/NWS Space Weather Prediction Center on Tuesday issued a statement saying that this Halloween the Earth could experience “G1 (Minor) Geomagnetic Storm activity.”
The possible activity, which would be due to a flurry of solar activity produced just a few days prior, could potentially disrupt radio signals, GPS, and some electronic systems here on the third rock from the sun. However, the effects of such a disturbance are likely to be minimal based on the predicted size of the coming storm.
While this storm may not produce a ‘Fright Night’ scenario for planet Earth this year, another eerily similar nightmare event occurred exactly ten years ago, on October 31, 2003.
[ Watch the Video: 2003 Halloween Solar Storms ]
The USGS this week reported that while kids were being scared out of their wits by ghouls, goblins and other tricksters during Halloween 2003, the Earth was dealing with another nightmare altogether: a geomagnetic storm produced by the sun.
In mid-October 2003, a mass of concentrated magnetic energy emerged from the interior of the sun, producing a large sunspot that was soon followed by a series of enormous solar flares. On October 28, 2003 this sunspot “ejected a concentrated mass of electrically conducting solar wind,” which was thrust outward in the direction of Earth. As the particles raced through space, they began reaching Earth a day later, disrupting the planet’s protective magnetosphere and initiating a geomagnetic storm.
Dubbed the “Halloween magnetic storm,” this event grew over the ensuing days to become one of the largest storms of its type in about 50 years. Such storms are global events and can easily be seen and felt around the world. During the 2003 event, for example, magnetic direction in Alaska quickly changed by more than 20 degrees.
“In other words, the storm was so large that it could be measured with a simple compass. The Halloween magnetic storm also produced spectacular aurora, with green phantom “northern lights” seen as far south as Texas and Florida,” the USGS said in a blog.
As the storm continued its nightmare attack on planet Earth through Halloween, a network of USGS magnetic observatories continued to monitor the activity with aid from international partners. The storm was so significant, and so disruptive, that scientists still continue to analyze the impacts of the storm to this day.
During the Halloween magnetic storm, a series of disruptions affected everything from earth-based systems to astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The storm caused notable disruptions to geomagnetic orientation relied upon by Alaskan oil and gas drilling systems, and airborne magnetic and geophysical surveys around the world were affected as well.
Also, the storm caused interference with over-the-horizon radio communications and had even forced airlines to cancel polar air routes and divert traffic to lower altitudes. Also affected was the Department of Defense’s maritime mission, which had to be canceled. GPS accuracy was also degraded, which further affected land and ocean surveys, as well as commercial and military navigation systems. Due to the storm, military and commercial satellites had to be put into protective mode, and those that weren’t were either damaged or permanently disabled due to the nightmare event.
NASA commanded astronauts aboard the ISS to seek precautionary shelter to avoid excessive levels of radiation caused by the solar storm. And back on Earth, electrical grids were forced into protective modes to prevent blackouts, as the geomagnetically induced currents in Earth’s crust caused significant stress in these systems, said the USGS.
The USGS Geomagnetism Program continuously monitors the Earth’s magnetic field via a network of 14 ground-based observatories. The data pulled from this program helps scientists calculate the intensity of magnetic storms. Scientific research also looks into the physical nature of magnetic storms, the development of tools that offer real-time situational awareness of geomagnetic hazards and assessment of the hazardous effects of such storms.
The USGS observatory network is also part of the much larger global INTERMAGNET network. Data from the USGS observatories are used by the Space Weather Prediction Center and the US Air Force Weather Agency for issuing geomagnetic warnings and forecasts.
So, if this year’s geomagnetic scare turns into a Halloween nightmare sequel, the USGS should have everything covered.