'Danger behind the beauty': more solar storms could be heading our way

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May 18, 2024, 12:53 PM


May 18, 2024, 12:52 PM

PARIS - Tourists normally have to pay big money and brave cold climates for a chance to see an aurora, but last weekend many people around the world simply had to look up to see these colourful displays dance across the sky.

Usually banished to the poles of Earth, the auroras strayed as far as Mexico, southern Europe and South Africa on the evening of May 10, delighting skygazers and filling social media with images of exuberant pinks, greens and purples.

But for those charged with protecting Earth from powerful solar storms such as the one that caused the auroras, a threat lurks beneath the stunning colours.

“We need to understand that behind this beauty, there is danger,” Dr Quentin Verspieren, the European Space Agency’s space safety programme coordinator, told AFP.

Mr Mike Bettwy of the US Space Weather Prediction Centre said that “we’re focused on the more sinister potential impacts” of solar storms, such as taking out power grids and satellites, or exposing astronauts to dangerous levels of radiation.

The latest auroras were caused by the most powerful geomagnetic storm since the “Halloween Storms” of October 2003, which sparked blackouts in Sweden and damaged power infrastructure in South Africa.

There appears to have been less damage from the latest solar storms, though it often takes weeks for satellite companies to reveal problems, Mr Bettwy said.

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