Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Mesmerising auroras can threaten planet Earth, harm critical infrastructure: Scientists

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The auroras have always appeared mesmerising and mythical to humans, however, a new study suggests that they can actually be a threat to planet Earth. 

The forces which lead to the birth of the auroras also lead to the formation of the currents which can damage infrastructure through which electricity is conducted, like pipelines.

The scientists wrote about how harmful these auroras can be in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences and showed that the impact angle of interplanetary shocks is the reason which determines the strength of the current and gives an opportunity for forecasting dangerous shocks and shields the critical infrastructure.

The article’s lead author NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre Dr. Denny Oliveira said, “Auroras and geomagnetically induced currents are caused by similar space weather drivers. The aurora is a visual warning that indicates that electric currents in space can generate these geomagnetically-induced currents on the ground.”

“The auroral region can greatly expand during severe geomagnetic storms,” he added. “Usually, its southernmost boundary is around latitudes of 70 degrees, but during extreme events, it can go down to 40 degrees or even further, which certainly occurred during the May 2024 storm—the most severe storm in the past two decades,” he added.

How auroras are formed?

The auroras are created by two processes – when particles ejected from the sun reach the magnetic field of Earth and lead to a geomagnetic storm, or when Earth’s magnetic field is compressed by interplanetary shocks.

The shocks also lead to the generation of geomagnetically induced currents. This has the capacity of damaging the infrastructure which conducts electricity. 

More powerful interplanetary shocks hint at more powerful currents and auroras, however, less powerful and frequent shocks can also be damaging.

“Arguably, the most intense deleterious effects on power infrastructure occurred in March 1989 following a severe geomagnetic storm—the Hydro-Quebec system in Canada was shut down for nearly nine hours, leaving millions of people with no electricity,” Oliveira said.

Watch: Gravitas: Human spaceflight – The riskiest venture of mankind

“But weaker, more frequent events such as interplanetary shocks can pose threats to ground conductors over time. Our work shows that considerable geoelectric currents occur quite frequently aftershocks, and they deserve attention,” he added.

The lead author further suggested, “One thing power infrastructure operators could do to safeguard their equipment is to manage a few specific electric circuits when a shock alert is issued. This would prevent geomagnetically induced currents from reducing the lifetime of the equipment.”

(With inputs from agencies)



Prisha is a digital journalist at WION and she majorly covers international politics. She loves to dive into features and explore different cultures and histories


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