The most powerful solar storm of the current solar cycle is currently reverberating around the globe.
Initially triggered by the impact of a coronal mass ejection (CME) hitting our planet's magnetosphere, a relatively mild geomagnetic storm erupted at around 04:30 UT (12:30 a.m. EDT), but it has since ramped-up to an impressive G4-class geomagnetic storm, priming high latitudes for some bright auroral displays.
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When strong auroral activity started brightening the skies early this morning over Alaska, speaking with Spaceweather.com photographer Marketa Murray said: "The auroras were insane. I have never seen anything like this."
Launched from the sun on Sunday, a large Earth-directed CME has reached Earth faster than expected. We've seen an uptick in solar activity in recent days, culminating in the first X-class flare of 2015 last week. But the impact of this CME has taken space weather scientists by surprise, an indication that the CME was "geoeffective."
Wrapped in a powerful magnetic field, CMEs consist of huge bubbles of energized gas from the sun's superheated corona (the solar atmosphere). The speed at which the CME travels into interplanetary space and the alighnment of its magnetic field can severely influence that CME's impact on Earth's magnetic field.
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Our planet has a global magnetic field called the magnetosphere, so should a CME hit the magnetosphere at just the right alignment, the CME's magnetic field can reconnect, causing intense magnetic disruption, injecting the magnetosphere with huge quantities of plasma from the sun. In this situation, the CME is said to be "geoeffective" and the resulting geomagnetic storm can be extreme.
Today's storm is so intense that it far overshadows anything that has come before it in our sun's current solar cycle. Approximately every 11 years, the sun waxes and wanes in magnetic activity, culminating in solar maximum, when the solar magnetic field is so stressed that flares and CMEs are commonplace. Although the sun is currently declining in activity from maximum that was predicted to have peaked in 2013, it goes to show that Solar Cycle 24 hasn't finished with us quite yet.
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The storm is still ongoing and space weather experts will be closely watching developments. Storms such as these can have global impacts - from overloading powergrids and causing communication outages to satellite damage. One thing is for certain, however, if you're fortunate to live in high latitudes, be sure to check out tonight's auroras, they will be impressive.
For more information about today's geomagnetic storm, follow updates on Spaceweather.com.