The Space Weather Prediction Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more commonly known as simply the NOAA, are reporting that a solar storm is expected to impact Earth this week, but what exactly does that mean, and do you need to be worried?

You've Probably Got Questions

You have likely seen phrases like solar storm, solar flare, and maybe even CME when reading about the various energy phenomenon surrounding our planet's sun, but what do they mean? What the heck is the difference between a solar storm and a solar flare? And what in the world is a CME, anyway?

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Photo by NASA on Unsplash
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It All Starts With a Flare

A solar flare is essentially an explosion from the surface of the sun and is what leads to other phenomena like solar storms and CMEs. The flares are essentially a sudden release of built-up magnetic energy in the atmosphere around the sun then cascading through space.

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It's Similar to a Static Discharge

It is similar to what happens when you walk around the house in socks in the dry, winter months, building up a static electric charge, and then you experience a shock when your body discharges that excess energy when you touch another person. These solar explosions are so intense that they create surges of electromagnetic radiation.

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Photo by Selvan B on Unsplash
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Measuring Flares

The surges, or solar flares, are ranked by scientists into five categories based on intensity - X-class flares, M-class, C-class, B-class, and A-class. Similar to the way the Richter scale measures the intensity of earthquakes, solar flares are measured with each class ten times more intense than the class prior. A-class flares are the smallest, and B-class flares are ten times larger than A-class but both are generally too weak to impact the planet. C-class flares are ten times larger than B-class (and thereby 100 times larger than an A-class flare) but still bear little impact on Earth.

What About M- & X-Class Flares?

The X-class is the most powerful, measuring 10,000+ times larger than an A-class flare. Both the M-class and X-class flares can cause what scientists call CMEs or Coronal Mass Ejections. Sounds intense, right? That's because it is.  According to Space.com is,

A Coronal Mass Ejection [is] a large release of plasma and magnetic field from the sun. This behavior can disrupt Earth's magnetosphere and result in geomagnetic storms. Such geomagnetic storms can lead to auroras closer to the equator than is possible during calm conditions.

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Photo by NASA on Unsplash
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But What the Heck is a Geomagnetic Storm?

NASA describes a geomagnetic storm as,

When a CME or high-speed stream arrives at Earth it buffets the magnetosphere. If the arriving solar magnetic field is directed southward it interacts strongly with the oppositely oriented magnetic field of the Earth. The Earth's magnetic field is then peeled open like an onion allowing energetic solar wind particles to stream down the field lines to hit the atmosphere over the poles.

The good news, according to NASA is that the subsequent decreases in magnetic field strength typically only last between 6 and 12 hours and they say the Earth's magnetic field will typically recover fully after several days.

Can Geomagnetic Storms Cause Problems?

Like so many things in the science world, geomagnetic storms are ranked on a 5-point intensity scale. A G1 storm is considered to be mild, while a G5 is labeled "extreme." A G1 storm, while mild, can impact migratory animals and even cause the Aurora Borealis to be visible over parts of the northern United States in places like Michigan and Maine, according to the NOAAG5 Geomagnetic Storm happens four times (one day each time) in an average solar cycle which lasts 11 years and can cause damage to power grid transformers on land, as well as uplink and tracking issues for satellites. 

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Photo by NASA on Unsplash
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When Is the Next Geomagnetic Storm?

The next geomagnetic storms are predicted by the NOAA's 3-day forecast to hit Earth this week on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, and again on Thursday, July 21, 2022. Both geomagnetic storms are anticipated to be level G1 storms.

 

There Could Be Solar Radiation Storms Too?

They say there is also a 10-15% chance for S1 solar radiation storms on the 19th, 20th, and 21st. S1 is the most moderate of the solar radiation storms and causes no real perceptible fluctuations. In addition to the slight chance for solar radiation storms, there is also a 35% chance for an R1 or R2 Radio Blackout (10% chance of an R3 or above). To learn more about radio blackouts, visit NOAA.

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Photo by Maria Vojtovicova on Unsplash
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But Will It Impact Me Personally?

NOAA has labeled both the anticipated geomagnetic and solar radiation storms as level 1 classifications so the odds of these having any type of direct impact on you or I is probably slim. At best, depending on where you live, you might be able to see an aurora with the naked eye. In fact, you probably didn't even notice when it happened last month so it is probably safe to assume that it will be business as usual for us earthlings this week. [Keep scrolling to see some incredible photos from NASA's public library]

LOOK: 31 breathtaking images from NASA's public library

In 2017, NASA opened the digital doors to its image and video library website, allowing the public to access more than 140,000 images, videos, and audio files. The collection provides unprecedented views of space. Stacker reviewed the collection to select 31 of the most breathtaking images, including the first from the James Webb Space Telescope. Keep reading to see these stunning images, curated with further information about the captured scenes.

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