A Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) is not what happens when someone drinks too much of a popular, pale Mexican beer. It’s not what happens when a member of a royal family gets angry and throws their bejeweled headgear out the window. It’s not what happens when sponges in the earth’s oceans suddenly move a foot in a half in one direction (that’s an undersea, unexplained mass sponge migration or UUMSM). A Coronal Mass Ejection is, according to wikipedia, quoting a NASA website, a massive burst of solar wind, other light isotope plasma, and magnetic fields rising above the solar corona or being released into space.
And earlier this morning, our Sun had a doozy of one:
Remember the words of Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic! Nasa scientists do not expect that the dead will rise to consume the flesh of the living from this, or any, CME. Incidentally, the image sequence above was recorded by the plucky robot satellite called SOHO, that’s been watching the sun since it’s launch in 1995. (It’s discovered over 2000 comets, some of which did kamikaze dives into the sun, obliterating themselves in a blaze of short-lived glory.) Conspiracy nuts are constantly sifting through SOHO images spotting large alien spacecraft and angels…any way, back to our CME.
A CME that heads in our general direction can cause a geomagnetic storm in the Earth’s magnetosphere that can result in vibrant displays of the auroras, or Northern and Southern Lights, as well as wreak some gremliny havoc on energy grids, and communication satellites such as those that feed data to your trusty GPS droid. Space weather experts are predicting a particularly strong geomagnetic storm for the morning of March 8 (tomorrow at the time of writing). Will power grids be disrupted like they were during the geomagnetic storm of 1989? The power companies have tried to make the grid less vulnerable to current surges induced by the storm activity since then….but I guess we’ll know when we know. Will the dead rise and crack open our skulls to feast on the goo inside? Will our escape from the undead hordes be foiled when we jump into our cars and the GPS lady says “recalculating…recalculating…”
Though I enjoy zombie literature, I’m not yet nailing boards across my windows and packing my muzzleloader full of powder and shot. Power outages aren’t necessarily bad for society. Peoples’ TVs suddenly go blank and people blink, turn their necks for the first time in days, maybe even step out onto their doorsteps and wave at their stunned neighbors, also surprised that fresh air, being vertical, and images created by something other than glowing pixels can be as invigorating as the Big Red commercial they were watching when the virtual universe went into standby mode. Conversation and community might actually ensue. And/or, people might look up and see a sky with no light pollution. Given that this hypothetical outage was caused by a magnetic storm, itself caused by a CME, itself caused–scientists now think–by the crossing of two magnetic field lines on the sun’s surface–don’t cross the streams, Ray!), we are also likely in for a fantastic display of the Auroras. During the great magnetic storm of 1850, auroras were seen over much of the Earth’s surface. I saw a wisp of an auroral display once, in junior high school, in winter, from my home north of Albany, NY. Just a wisp of green fluctuation in the sky, but it was magnificent. Such a display demands the lights be turned down, and that might just be what happens.
I’ll never forget the testimony of Staten Island based astronomy professor Irve Robbins, who told the director of the excellent documentary The City Dark: “I’ve seen twice the Milky Way in New York–when there was a blackout.”
So, if yesterday’s CME shuts off the power tomorrow and your GPS woman spirals into an inconsolable depression, look up at night (if it’s clear) and remember you’re standing and living on a relatively tiny slightly-oblate sphere, with space just a few hundred miles above your head, and that space is immense and dynamic and active and dangerous and beautiful.
And when the TVs come back on, then the dead will rise. Or rather, they won’t. They’ll sit, remote controls in hand. Waiting for something to happen.
For space weather updates, go to www.spaceweather.com