The giant solar storm is having measurable effects on Earth The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there have been measurable effects and impacts from the biggest geomagnetic storm in decades.

The huge solar storm is keeping power grid and satellite operators on edge

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the Earth is in the middle of its worst geomagnetic storm in nearly 20 years. The storm could cause disruptions to communications and navigation equipment, and might even trigger a blackout or two in some parts of the world. It will also cause beautiful auroras that could be visible across large sections of the U.S. Joining us to discuss this is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hey, Geoff.


SHAPIRO: I'm looking out the window, and I don't see any thunder or lightning. So what is this geomagnetic storm of which we speak?

BRUMFIEL: Well, it actually all started on the surface of the sun. There's an enormous group of sunspots there, 16 times the diameter of the entire Earth. Now, sunspots are tangled masses of magnetic fields, and they end up snapping out huge quantities of charged particles. And one of these groups of particles came towards our planet today. It's already hit. There's going to be several more waves coming over the weekend, and the Earth will likely experience even more effects.

SHAPIRO: OK. So humans can't feel this, but it does have impacts. How do these space particles make problems here on Earth?

BRUMFIEL: Well, these particles are captured by the Earth's magnetic field. And depending on how they're aligned, they can cause big fluctuations in that field. Now, there's this process called induction, whereby a changing magnetic field can create an electric current. And very long power lines on the surface of the Earth, that changing field can actually induce significant currents and voltages, and that can trip up our electrical grid.

You know, the particles do a lot more than that. The Earth has its own layer of charged particles in the atmosphere called the ionosphere. They completely mess that up. That can cause problems for satellites. GPS signals may get distorted. And then it also causes the entire atmosphere to expand, and the bigger atmosphere can drag some satellites down. It's a little unclear how their orbits will change, but it could get a little chaotic up there.

SHAPIRO: It sounds a little scary. Should we be worried?

BRUMFIEL: Well, don't panic. This isn't going to cause some society-wide collapse. The researchers I heard from today seem at most slightly concerned. Tuija Pulkkinen of the University of Michigan put it this way.

TUIJA PULKKINEN: I'm not terribly worried. Certainly, being in the darkness would be an inconvenience.

BRUMFIEL: And I should say widespread blackouts aren't expected. Cellphones, the internet, most of the other things we use in our daily lives will all probably be fine. So, you know, you might want to check the batteries in that flashlight you keep at home. And if it does go dark, then you should just go outside and see if you can catch the aurora.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, onto the fun part. Tell us how to see these auroras.

BRUMFIEL: Well, the further north you are in the U.S., the more likely you are to see them. But the aurora could come as far south as Alabama, according to NOAA. And, you know, I got to tell you there's already pictures popping up all over the internet from Russia, from Germany, from Finland, from New Zealand, which is on the southern end of this. So if you can't see it out your own window, you should definitely get online and look. It's absolutely stunning what's already showing up. It should get even better over the weekend. And, you know, tag me if you take any pictures. Post them.

SHAPIRO: I'm going to Google that as soon as I say goodbye to you. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thank you.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you so much.

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