Monitoring Geomagnetic Storms
We can see the solar flares within 9 minutes because they emit photons, traditionally said to have zero mass, and which travel at the speed of light. The energized destructive particles follow at slower and varying speeds. NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft, located 1.5 km from Earth and launched in 1997, is presently used as a one-hour early warning of these destructive particles that create geomagnetic storms.
Taking a real-life example, as Decoded Science’s author Paul Heckert reported, sunspot AR 1429 unleashed an M6 class solar flare on March 9, 2012 at 03:58 Universal Time… and the resulting CME was calculated to reach earth’s magnetic field at 06:49 UT on the evening of March 11, 2012. That works out to an elapsed travel time of approximately 51 hours.
In addition to the ACE spacecraft operated by NASA, NOAA operates the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) which presently carry a sophisticated Solar X-ray Imager to monitor the Sun’s X-rays for the early detection of solar flares and coronal mass ejections. The space weather division of NOAA then classifies the resultant geomagnetic storms from G1, minor storms, to G5, extreme storms.
Furthermore, as part of the National Space Weather Program the USGS maintains 14 observatories around the United States and its territories and provides ground-based measurements of changes in the magnetic field. NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center and the US Air Force Weather Agency then track the intensity of the magnetic storm generated by this solar activity.
Personal Geomagnetic Storm Preparedness
There are a host of doomsday scenarios surrounding geomagnetic storms, and the truth is there should be regulations set up, for instance, to require utility companies to harden their infrastructures, monitor for geomagnetically-induced currents, or report transformer failures following geomagnetic storms.
But as individuals, we should heed the normal survival rules of checking space weather reports, having enough food and water on hand to last each person at least one week, and if anyone in your household relies on medication, taking measures to ensure more than enough of it is on hand. And, as a backup, keep a stash of emergency electronics in a cardboard box double-wrapped with aluminum foil.
Christian, E.R, Davis, A.J. ACE Mission Overview. Caltech. (2012). Accessed September 11, 2013.
Heckert, Paul. Another Solar Geomagnetic Storm Coming March 11, 2012. (2012). Decoded Science. Accessed September 11, 2013.
NRCan. Monitoring and Forecasting Space Weather. (2013). Accessed September 11, 2013.
USGS. The USGS Monitors Earth’s Magnetic Field to Prepare Citizens for Magnetic Storms. (2012). Accessed September 11, 2013.
USGS. USGS Geomagnetism Program. (2013). Accessed September 11, 2013.
NOAA. A Primer on Space Weather. Accessed September 11, 2013.
NOAA. Space Weather Scales. (2005). Accessed September 11, 2013.
University of California. Living With a Star: Ionosphere. (2002). Accessed September 11, 2013.
Decoding Science. One article at a time.