Weather Update: Summer Geomagnetic Storm

Air Date:
Heard On The Larry Meiller Show
The Northern Lights.
Emil Kepko (CC-BY-2.0)

The Northern Lights were spotted earlier this month in Alaska, Canada and a few southern states. Find out about the storm that caused the phenomenon.

Featured in this Show

  • Weather Expert Explains How Aurora Borealis Occurs, How Storms Impact Earth

    A geomagnetic storm occurred last week and as a result, the beautiful aurora borealis was viewed from various regions across the country, including northern Wisconsin.

    The storm emanates from the sun, according to Steve Ackerman, the director of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He said that the sun goes through a cycle of activity and varying appearance over an 11-year period. The sun produces varying levels of solar radiation and ejection of solar material during that time.

    “The sun goes through an 11-year cycle of sunspot maximums and sunspot minimums. And these geomagnetic storms, like this previous one, come out of these sunspots. So, they’re very active and they sort of blast high-energy particles our way,” Ackerman said.

    As a result of these high-energy particles being emitted, they penetrate the earth’s magnetic field, according to the Northern Lights Centre. The particles collide with atoms and molecules from earth’s atmosphere, resulting in many bursts of light, known as photons. These lights make up the aurora, giving the phenomenon the first part of its name. When the particles collide with nitrogen, pinks and purples are emitted. Collisions with oxygen produce red and green auroras.

    The second part of the name, borealis, refers to “north” because the storm occurs in the Northern Hemisphere.

    Unfortunately, the storm also causes negative effects on the planet. For example, satellite features are sometimes disabled during a geomagnetic storm which means they can interfere with GPSs, Ackerman said.

    He also said they can have an effect on communications and electric grids, causing people to lose electricity. The storms have the potential to cause some real damage.

    “There’s actually some talk if we get a really bad geomagnetic storm, with a lot of high energy particles coming from the sun. It can result in three trillion dollars’ worth of damage in our electrical system,” Ackerman said.

    Fortunately, there are ways to predict a storm which allows people to take evasive actions. There are, however, only so many precautions one can take when a powerful geomagnetic storm hits.

    “It’s like a tornado; you can sort of predict it. You know what’s going to happen but once it gets going there’s not much you can do,” Ackerman said.

Episode Credits

  • Larry Meiller Host
  • Cheyenne Lentz Producer
  • Steve Ackerman Guest