Improving Space Weather Warning Systems: How Solar Activity Impacts Daily Life

In May, many people witnessed the stunning aurora borealis and australis – the northern and southern lights. These colorful light displays were caused by a massive solar storm, painting the night sky with shades of green, red, and purple in areas where such sights are rare. I had the chance to see them for the first time in the UK, right from my backyard near Birmingham. More of these dazzling displays are expected in the upcoming months as solar activity reaches its peak.

However, what most individuals did not see were the effects and the precautions taken behind the scenes to lessen them. During this time, radio communication systems faced interruptions, Starlink experienced outages, and disruptions in global navigation satellite systems created issues for industries relying on positioning. Additionally, flights had to be rerouted, and precautions were taken to protect electric grids.

The occurrence of these awe-inspiring auroras is just a taste of what is to come, as scientists predict more solar storms in the future. This presents a challenge for space-weather experts like myself: how can we effectively issue warnings and communicate the impact of such significant events when they seem to have little effect on most people’s lives? The way we classify space weather plays a crucial role in this.

Current systems for categorizing geomagnetic storms are quite basic. Geomagnetic storms are assessed using scales developed by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in collaboration with the space-weather community. These scales range from one to five, with five indicating an extreme event. While these scales have been useful in highlighting the risks associated with space weather, they may need to be updated.

The May geomagnetic storm that led to the stunning auroras was classified as G5, or ‘extreme’. However, the effects of a solar storm can be complex to measure. Factors such as the speed, mass, duration, and magnetic orientation of coronal mass ejections all contribute to the impact of a storm. The May storm was a 1-in-10-year event in terms of peak geomagnetic activity but stood out due to its prolonged duration, making it more akin to a 1-in-75-year event.

Communicating the risks of space weather becomes challenging when events like the May storm, labeled ‘extreme’, result in minimal disruption. This raises questions about how to convey the dangers of an even stronger 1-in-100-year storm. The possibility of a superstorm looms, with potential costs in the billions and disruptions to essential systems like electric grids, satellites, and radio signals.

To address these challenges, some researchers suggest expanding severity levels to include six and above, while others propose introducing new scales to cover additional phenomena. One approach involves adopting a ‘traffic light’ model of warnings tailored to specific sectors. Yellow warnings could alert industries like aviation and agriculture to minor geomagnetic storms, while orange warnings might prompt power grid operators to prepare for potential interruptions.

A red warning would indicate imminent dangerous space weather with significant impacts, requiring immediate action from power companies, satellite operators, and emergency services. This system would enable quick alerts to those most affected and allow for updates and escalations as new data becomes available. It would also encourage a unified approach to refining space weather reporting and response strategies on a global scale.

As we navigate through the peak of the solar cycle, it is vital to recognize the impact of space weather on our daily lives. By enhancing classification and reporting systems, scientists can ensure that the public is adequately prepared for the real risks posed by extreme space weather events. This proactive approach will help prevent any surprises and keep us all safe and informed.