Perhaps the magnetic poles are about to flip. We seem to be overdue for one, according to geological records. We know that the magnetic field is weakening from recent observations.

The magnetic poles reversal may sound terrifying, but is it going to be dangerous? Well, not really (with certain caveats). Pole flipping, or geomagnetic reversal in technical terms, is quite common throughout our planet’s history. Despite this, life has survived and thrived. Mass extinction or other global catastrophe will not occur.

Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are large-scale eruptions of plasma and magnetic field from the outer layer of the sun. They generate energy equivalent to about one billion hydrogen bombs as the most intense eruptions on the solar surface.

While they have an enormous influence on space weather, the effects of most CMEs are about the same as normal solar winds by the time they reach us — that is, the magnetic field’s speeds and strengths are comparable to those of the charged particles of the sun.

A team led by Ying Liu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Space Science Center used multi-point sensing satellites to study the rare case of two consecutive eruptions that took place on 22-23 July 2012 to better understand how they change as they travel from the sun.

.NASA’s STEREO A probe that circles the sun before us in Earth’s orbit (its twin, STEREO B, trails in our orbit) detected a magnetic storm.

The team concluded on the basis of their analysis of the 2012 event that the rapid succession of two CMEs resulted in an extreme space weather storm— a “perfect storm”— with remarkably high solar wind speed and magnetic fields. Specifically, they were enhanced in a 5-fold superstorm by the interactions between the two nearly simultaneous CMEs, divided by only 10 to 15 minutes.

The enormous outburst propelled a magnetic cloud through the solar wind at a peak speed of more than 2,000 kilometers per second. The speed was so high because another mass ejection had cleared the path of material four days earlier that would have slowed it down, weakening the solar wind and magnetic field to travel through the following two CMEs.

In this video, you can see the solar superstorm resulting from two successive eruptions that interact. The white dots are the “snowstorms” produced by the energetic particles of the cameras. The shock wave of charged particles washed over the probe’s sensors in just 18.6 hours.

Apart from the one-two punch speed, the event was dangerous because it produced a south-oriented magnetic field that would have merged violently with Earth’s northward field if it hit us — driving large magnetic storms and creating auroras all the way down to the tropics.

“These gnarly, twisted magnetic field ropes from coronal mass ejections blast from the sun through the solar environment, piling up material before them, and when this double whammy hits Earth, it skews the Earth’s magnetic field in odd directions, dumping energy all over the planet,” explains co-author Janet Luhmann of UC Berkeley in a press release.

The 1859 Carrington Event was the largest magnetic storm ever reported on Earth ; the U.S. telegraph system was knocked out, and northern lights (aurora borealis) illuminated the night sky south as Hawaii.

“But with our modern technologies today’s effect would have been tremendous,” adds Luhmann. A small event in 1989 resulted in a loss of electricity to six million people for up to 9 hours. A solar storm like the Carrington Event could cost around the world as much as $2.6 trillion and could recover for 4 to 10 years.

The findings were published in Nature Communications.



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