Last weekend’s northern lights are just the beginning, experts warn

Stunning photos of the Northern Lights, observed at much lower latitudes than usual, saturated social media on May 10 and 11. For space weather specialists, these auroras triggered by a gigantic solar storm proved that the sun was approaching the peak of its eleven-year activity cycle. If the phenomenon was expected, it remains no less spectacular.

Managers of satellites, power grids and other critical technological infrastructure are still assessing the consequences of this historic phenomenon – the most powerful geomagnetic storm since 2003. But major systems appear to have held up.

This is encouraging, because new storms are expected: the most powerful geomagnetic storms of a solar cycle can occur after the “solar maximum”, which is expected before the end of the year. Nature details what happened around May 10 and 11 and what physicists specializing in the Sun predict.

What happened on May 10 and 11?

It was a sunspot, called “AR3664” and appeared under the equator of the Sun, on the side currently facing the Earth, which caused everything. At about 17 times the width of Earth, it is arguably the largest and most complex sunspot in the current solar cycle, which began in 2019, said Shawn Dahl, space weather forecaster for the American Oceanic and Atmospheric Observing Agency.

Starting on May 8, AR3664 sent at least seven eruptions of magnetized plasma – or coronal mass ejections – towards Earth, at speeds of up to 1,800 km/s. More waves of charged plasma and solar debris overwhelmed space weather instruments. Astrophysicist Ryan French of the National Solar Observatory (United States) saw something“hypnotic” : first by seeing the data pour in, then by watching the aurora, which sparked a “pure wonder”.


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Nature (London)

Since 1869, this well-deserved scientific journal has hosted – after several months of verification – reports on major innovations in all fields: from biology to physics to astronomy. His age does not prevent him from remaining astonishingly dynamic. In addition to articles intended for researchers and scientists, the journal also offers pages of news, debates and files accessible to the general public.

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