What is the G5 Storm?

One of the most powerful—and potentially destructive—space weather phenomena is hurricane G5. But what exactly is hurricane G5 and what effect could it have on Earth?

Space weather is a term used to describe phenomena that occur in the outer space environment between the sun, the earth and its surroundings. It originates from solar activity and can manifest itself in a variety of different ways, including solar flares, coronal mass ejections and geomagnetic storms, among many others.

While Earth’s magnetic field largely protects us from charged particles emitted by the sun, space weather phenomena can sometimes impact our planet, disrupting life and technological infrastructure, both in space and on land.

What is a Geomagnetic Hurricane?

A geomagnetic storm is a significant disturbance of the Earth’s magnetic field caused by changes in the solar wind—the stream of energy-charged particles flowing out of the sun—and the interplanetary magnetic field.

Variations in the solar wind can affect the nature of the Earth’s magnetic field, producing geomagnetic storms that can last for hours to days.

Stock image: Artist’s illustration of the sun’s interaction with the earth’s magnetic field. A geomagnetic storm is a large disturbance in the earth’s magnetic field caused by changes in the solar wind.
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These storms are often caused by coronal mass ejections (CME)—the massive ejection of plasma (fourth elementary matter state) and magnetic field from the outermost part of the sun’s atmosphere, called the corona.

High-velocity solar wind flows can also result in geomagnetic storms, although these events tend to be less intense than those associated with the CME.

What are the Effects of a Geomagnetic Hurricane?

Geomagnetic storms heat and distort the ionosphere—the part of Earth’s upper atmosphere that begins at an altitude of about 50 miles above sea level. This can cause interference with long-distance radio communications as well as global positioning systems (GPS).

These storms can also damage satellite electronics, while astronauts and pilots flying at high altitudes can be exposed to high levels of radiation. In the field, these events can result in grid surges, which can lead to blackouts.

What is a G5 hurricane?

The National Oceanic Administration (NOAA) has created a measurement system to assess geomagnetic storms and their potential effects ranging from G1 (minor) to G5 (extreme).

“Basically, think of this as a scale of how strong a hurricane is likely to be,” Piyush Mehta, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of West Virginia, said. News Week.

“G5 is likely to have an impact on anything and everything we know about today’s impact space weather,” he said.

While small geomagnetic storms tend to have very little effect on Earth, hurricanes classified as G5 can produce a potentially devastating impact.

For example, some power grid systems can completely collapse causing widespread blackouts. Meanwhile, the satellite navigation system may experience difficulties for days. In addition, the aurora may be visible from areas as far south as Florida and southern Texas, according to NOAA.

Fortunately, G5 hurricanes are rare, but when they do, they have the potential to cause serious damage. The strongest geomagnetic hurricane ever recorded was the Carrington Event of 1859, which caused telegraph system failures worldwide, even setting off fires at several telegraph stations.

Aurora Borealis in Iceland
Stock image: Aurora Borealis in the night sky over Iceland. Geomagnetic storms can trigger auroras in places where the phenomenon is not commonly seen.

“When that happened, we didn’t really have a lot of technology infrastructure,” Mehta said. “We just have telegraph lines and stuff like that, we don’t have power lines. So it’s estimated that a repeat of the Carrington Event today could cause $2 trillion in damage.”

“There are different models that have been developed to predict how likely or how often such an event is likely to occur,” he said. “And most models suggest that a Carrington-type event is likely to occur every few hundred years. No one really knows exactly when it will happen. So it’s better to be prepared and improve our ability to predict when it will happen.”

According to Mehta, there is also the possibility that a storm stronger than the Carrington Event could someday.

“There’s always the unknown. We just don’t know how strong the storm really is,” he said.

While predicting when geomagnetic storms will occur is difficult, they are more likely to occur near the solar maximum — the period in the sun’s 11-year cycle when it is most active.

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