This week has already seen the largest solar storm in over a decade, with auroras (commonly known as “The Northern Lights” in North America) visible far further south (and north in the southern hemisphere) than usual. Sky watchers are in for a treat again on Wednesday night, as a second strong solar storm will cause a return of the auroras.
Auroras (of which the aurora borealis and aurora austeralis are the most common) are the result of charged particles from cosmic rays and solar winds (both products of solar activity, particulary solar storms) entering our atmosphere. These particles then charge other particles in the atmosphere, ionizing them, creating the lights and colors we see.
While the spectacle thrills us with its beauty and serenity, it is important to note that solar storms are serious occurrences, which can impact life on earth. Solar storms emit huge amounts of energy and radiation which impact our technologically dependent civilization. During these storms satellite systems such as GPS can malfunction, necessitating aircraft groundings and other travel / transport related counter-measures. Moreover, solar storms can cause power outages, such as in Canada in 2006, and in South Africa in 2004.