Emergency responders dealing with the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Florida and the Carolinas may have suffered extra setbacks on Sunday (Oct. 2) as a major solar flare disrupted radio communications.
The solar flare, a powerful X1 (the mildest form of the strongest category of flares) erupted from the sun on Sunday at 3:53 p.m. EDT (1953 GMT) and peaked about 30 minutes later. Since solar flares travel at the speed of light, the burst of electromagnetic radiation caused an immediate radio blackout up to an hour long on the sun-facing side of the planet. The affected region included the whole of the U.S., according to the SpaceWeatherWatch (opens in new tab).
The radio blackout, classed by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as a strong R3 category, likely affected rescue workers using 25 MHz radios to communicate in areas where the rampage of Hurricane Ian knocked down cell phone networks. The disruption in the upper layers of Earth's atmosphere caused by the flare may also have made GPS positioning unavailable or less accurate, space weather physicist Tamitha Skov said on Twitter (opens in new tab).
A somewhat milder flare followed a few hours later, causing another radio blackout over the western Pacific and Australia, according to SpaceWeatherWatch (opens in new tab).
Both flares originated from sunspot (a darkened area of intense magnetic activity on the sun's surface) called AR3110 in the northwestern part of the sun's visible disk and each was accompanied by a coronal mass ejection (CME), which is a burst of magnetized particles from the sun's upper atmosphere, the corona. The two plasma clouds may now be heading to Earth, following a couple of earlier CMEs that exploded from the sun on Saturday (Oct. 1).
Simultaneously, a stronger-than-usual solar wind, a stream of charged particles constantly emanating from the sun, is currently blowing toward our planet from a coronal hole (an opening in the magnetic field of the sun). The combination means that the CMEs may trigger a noticeable geomagnetic storm on Earth in the coming days. NOAA predicts (opens in new tab) that a moderate (G2) geomagnetic storm might hit the planet on Tuesday (Oct. 4), possibly causing minor power grid issues at high latitudes and affecting satellites in low Earth orbit.
Space weather forecasters expect more flares and CMEs in the coming days. A new, large and "complex" sunspot, AR3112, has emerged in the northeast and will traverse the sun's visible disk during the next two weeks, according to the U.K. space weather forecaster Met Office. According to SpaceWeather.com (opens in new tab), AR3112 is "one of the biggest sunspots in years," stretching across 80,000 miles (130,000 kilometers). The Met Office said that AR3112 has a potential to become more active, which means a likelihood of more flares and CMEs.
"Solar activity is forecast to be moderate to high, with flares likely from the large region in the northeast and the region in the northwest," the Met Office said in a statement (opens in new tab).
For aurora chasers, the geomagnetic storms mean a good chance of spotting polar lights away from their usual confines around the poles. The displays might be visible as far south as the north of Scotland in the U.K. and the northern U.S.