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Anticipation builds for more Northern Lights as solar activity peaks

IN the wake of a mesmerising display of the aurora borealis last weekend, experts predict further celestial spectacles are imminent due to heightened solar activity. A substantial sunspot cluster, responsible for recent intense solar flares, is expected to face Earth again in approximately two weeks, potentially sparking more geomagnetic storms and Northern Lights displays.

Scientists at the Met Office, including space weather forecaster Krista Hammond, report that this activity is part of the approaching solar maximum, a peak phase in the Sun’s 11-year cycle marked by increased magnetic upheavals and sunspot production. This cycle, the 25th since systematic observations began in 1755, is proving more vigorous than anticipated.

Last Saturday’s geomagnetic storm, categorised as a G5—the highest alert level by both the Met Office and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—was the most severe since 2003. Triggered by multiple coronal mass ejections (CMEs), the storm disrupted high-frequency radio communications globally and posed challenges to various satellite operations.

The aftermath of the storm highlighted our vulnerability to space weather. SpaceX’s Starlink satellites experienced significant strain, leading to voltage spikes, as reported by the European Space Agency (ESA). The added radiation also disturbed GPS signals, impacting everything from aviation—necessitating the reroute of a transatlantic flight—to precision farming, with reported disruptions in GPS-dependent agricultural machinery.

On Earth, the heightened electrical currents tested power grid robustness worldwide. In New Zealand, some circuits were temporarily shut down as a precaution, while the UK’s electricity network operators implemented measures like extra back-up generation to manage potential voltage fluctuations.

This heightened solar activity brings not only stunning natural displays but also underscores the critical importance of preparedness for space weather impacts. The UK government ranks extreme space weather as a significant threat on its national risk register, citing potential severe consequences such as widespread power outages and infrastructure damage.

According to Sean Elvidge, a professor in space environment at the University of Birmingham, the recent storm serves as a reminder of the potentially devastating effects of more powerful storms, like the historical Carrington Event of 1859, which disrupted telegraph systems and caused widespread fires.

As the Sun continues its active phase, the role of advanced forecasting and international cooperation in mitigating space weather effects becomes increasingly crucial. Agencies like NOAA and the Met Office are enhancing their monitoring capabilities, ensuring that critical infrastructure and governments worldwide are forewarned of impending solar storms, thus safeguarding both modern technology and the daily lives dependent on it.

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