According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a solar storm was supposed to wash over Earth on 24 July and it was classified as a minor geomagnetic storm, so it was not deemed to have caused any direct damage to earth and mostly benign. But scientists see more impact of such solar storms on earth now.
Earth has an active magnetosphere—the magnetic field of Earth that forms a sort of bubble of protection around the whole planet. When solar winds hit the magnetosphere, there is an energy transfer between the two, this is what a geomagnetic storm is.
Solar winds, on the other hand, are formed when charged particles escape the Sun's upper atmosphere and sometimes get ejected all over the Solar System. Caused by heated gases moving upward from the surface of the Sun, one such storm this week hit Earth.
"The magnetosphere can capture some of the particles escaping from the sun, storing them and energy in the space around the Earth," University College London space plasma physicist Colin Forsyth told Newsweek.
Space weather like this is known to modify and cause changes to the magnetosphere's currents while distorting its fields.
The Sun is a highly active, extremely hot mass of gas and at times, massive quantities, up to billions of tons of charged particles get spewed out through holes in the star's corona. This is called coronal mass ejection and it is one of the sources of solar winds.
These charged particles, after exiting the corona of the Sun, travel at massive speeds toward Earth, like the event that happened this week. NASA said the solar wind was travelling at over 600 km per second.
Despite travelling at such massive speeds, the storm did not affect Earth in any way because most of it was absorbed by the magnetosphere. Satellites in orbit, however, might not have been so lucky and they are likely to have been hit by solar particles, said researchers. "When the fast solar wind from a coronal hole hits the Earth, it compresses the magnetosphere and adds even more energy into it," Forsyth said.
"This can enhance the space radiation environment, posing a risk to spacecraft orbiting high above the Earth."
Magnetic storms, if they are powerful enough, are known to interfere with GPS, cell phone reception and satellite-based communications, including TV. If the storm is extreme, it can even affect satellites orientation and make communication to Earth difficult, said media reports.
This week's geomagnetic storm was previously predicted to cause "weak power grid fluctuations". If the storm was much stronger, it would have resulted in widespread blackouts. Weak geomagnetic storms are not uncommon, notes the report, they happen for 900 days in solar cycles of 11 years. Most storm pass without most people even being aware that they are happening, explains Forsyth.
NOAA forecast said the storm was to peak on Tuesday afternoon, but its effects are expected to remain on the geomagnetic field until Thursday, at least.