Geomagnetic storms

This article is about disturbances within Earth's magnetosphere. For other uses of "magnetic storm", see Magnetic storm (disambiguation).

A geomagnetic storm is a temporary disturbance of the Earth's magnetosphere caused by a solar wind shock wave and/or cloud of magnetic field which interacts with the Earth's magnetic field. The increase in the solar wind pressure initially compresses the magnetosphere and the solar wind's magnetic field interacts with the Earth’s magnetic field and transfers an increased energy into the magnetosphere. Both interactions cause an increase in movement of plasma through the magnetosphere (driven by increased electric fields inside the magnetosphere) and an increase in electric current in the magnetosphere and ionosphere.

During the main phase of a geomagnetic storm, electric current in the magnetosphere creates a magnetic force which pushes out the boundary between the magnetosphere and the solar wind. The disturbance in the interplanetary medium which drives the geomagnetic storm may be due to a solar coronal mass ejection (CME) or a high speed stream (co-rotating interaction region or CIR)[1] of the solar wind originating from a region of weak magnetic field on the Sun’s surface. The frequency of geomagnetic storms increases and decreases with the sunspot cycle. CME driven storms are more common during the maximum of the solar cycle and CIR driven storms are more common during the minimum of the solar cycle.

There are several space weather phenomena which tend to be associated with or are caused by a geomagnetic storm. These include: Solar Energetic Particle (SEP) events, geomagnetically induced currents (GIC), ionospheric disturbances which cause radio and radar scintillation, disruption of navigation by magnetic compass and auroral displays at much lower latitudes than normal. In 1989, a geomagnetic storm energized ground induced currents which disrupted electric power distribution throughout most of the province of Quebec[2] and caused aurorae as far south as Texas.[3]



In 1931, Sydney Chapman and Vincenzo C. A. Ferraro wrote an article, A New Theory of Magnetic Storms, that sought to explain the phenomenon of geomagnetic storms.[4] They argued that whenever the Sun emits a solar flare it will also emit a plasma cloud. This plasma will travel at a velocity such that it reaches Earth within 113 days. The cloud will then compress the Earth's magnetic field and thus increase this magnetic field at the Earth's surface.[5]

Definition of a geomagnetic storm

A geomagnetic storm is defined[6] by changes in the DST[7] (disturbance – storm time) index. The Dst index estimates the globally averaged change of the horizontal component of the Earth’s magnetic field at the magnetic equator based on measurements from a few magnetometer stations. Dst is computed once per hour and reported in near-real-time.[8] During quiet times, Dst is between +20 and -20 nano-Tesla (nT).

A geomagnetic storm has three phases:[6] an initial phase, a main phase and a recovery phase. The initial phase is characterized by Dst (or its one-minute component SYM-H) increasing by 20 to 50 nT in tens of minutes. The initial phase is also referred to as a storm sudden commencement (SSC). However, not all geomagnetic storms have an initial phase and not all sudden increases in Dst or SYM-H are followed by a geomagnetic storm. The main phase of a geomagnetic storm is defined by Dst decreasing to less than -50 nT. The selection of -50 nT to define a storm is somewhat arbitrary. The minimum value during a storm will be between -50 and approximately -600 nT. The duration of the main phase is typically between 2 and 8 hours. The recovery phase is the period when Dst changes from its minimum value to its quiet time value. The period of the recovery phase may be as short as 8 hours or as long as 7 days.

The size of a geomagnetic storm is classified as moderate (-50 nT > minimum of Dst < -100 nT), intense (-100 nT > minimum Dst < -250 nT) or super-storm ( minimum of Dst > -250 nT).

Historical occurrences

Early in the 19th century the first geomagnetic storm was observed, or to be more precise the effects of it were observed: From May 1806 until June 1807 the German Alexander von Humboldt recorded the bearing of a magnetic compass in Berlin. On 21 December 1806 he noticed that his compass had become erratic during a bright auroral event.[9]

On September 1 – 2, 1859, the largest recorded geomagnetic storm occurred. From August 28 until September 2, 1859, numerous sunspots and solar flares were observed on the Sun, the largest flare occurring on September 1. This is referred to as the Solar storm of 1859 or the Carrington Event. It can be assumed that a massive coronal mass ejection (CME), associated with the flare, was launched from the Sun and reached the Earth within eighteen hours — a trip that normally takes three to four days. The horizontal intensity of geomagnetic field was reduced by 1600 nT as recorded by the Colaba observatory near Bombay, India. It is estimated that Dst would have been approximately -1750 nT.[10] Telegraph wires in both the United States and Europe experienced induced emf, in some cases even shocking telegraph operators and causing fires. Aurorae were seen as far south as Hawaii, Mexico, Cuba, and Italy — phenomena that are usually only seen near the poles. Ice cores show evidence that events of similar intensity recur at an average rate of approximately once per 500 years.

Since 1859, less severe storms have occurred, notably the aurora of November 17, 1882 and the May 1921 geomagnetic storm, both with disruption of telegraph service and inititation of fires, and 1960, when widespread radio disruption was reported.[11]

The March 1989 geomagnetic storm caused the collapse of the Hydro-Québec power grid in a matter of seconds as equipment protection relays tripped in a cascading sequence of events.[2][13] Six million people were left without power for nine hours, with significant economic loss. The storm even caused aurorae as far south as Texas.[3] The geomagnetic storm causing this event was itself the result of a coronal mass ejection, ejected from the Sun on March 9, 1989.[14] The minimum of Dst was -589 nT.

On July 14, 2000, an X5 class flare erupted on the Sun (known as the Bastille Day event) and a coronal mass ejection was launched directly at the Earth. A geomagnetic super storm occurred on July 15–17; the minimum of the Dst index was – 301 nT. Despite the strength of the geomagnetic storm, no electrical power distribution failures were reported.[15] The Bastille Day event was observed by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2,[16] thus it is the farthest out in the solar system that a solar storm has been observed.

Seventeen major flares erupted on the Sun between 19 October and 5 November 2003, including perhaps the most intense flare ever measured on the GOES XRS sensor – a huge X28 flare,[17] resulting in an extreme radio blackout, on 4 November. These flares were associated with CME events which impacted the Earth. The CMEs caused three geomagnetic storms between Oct 29 and November 2 during which the second and third storms were initiated before the previous storm period had fully recovered. The minimum Dst values were -151, -353 and -383 nT. Another storm in this event period occurred on November 4 – 5 with a minimum Dst of -69.nT. The last geomagnetic storm was weaker than the preceding storms because the active region on the Sun had rotated beyond the meridian where the central portion CME created during the flare event passed to the side of the Earth. The whole sequence of events is known as the ‘Halloween Storm’.[18] The Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) operated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was offline for approximately 30 hours due to the storm.[19] The Japanese ADEOS-2 satellite was severely damaged and the operation of many other satellites were interrupted due to the storm.[20]

Interactions with planetary processes

The solar wind also carries with it the magnetic field of the Sun. This field will have either a North or South orientation. If the solar wind has energetic bursts, contracting and expanding the magnetosphere, or if the solar wind takes a southward polarization, geomagnetic storms can be expected. The southward field causes magnetic reconnection of the dayside magnetopause, rapidly injecting magnetic and particle energy into the Earth's magnetosphere.

During a geomagnetic storm, the ionosphere's F2 layer will become unstable, fragment, and may even disappear. In the northern and southern pole regions of the Earth, auroras will be observable in the sky.

Geomagnetic storm effects

Radiation hazards to humans

Intense solar flares release very-high-energy particles that can cause radiation poisoning to humans (and mammals in general) in the same way as low-energy radiation from nuclear blasts.

Earth's atmosphere and magnetosphere allow adequate protection at ground level, but astronauts in space are subject to potentially lethal doses of radiation. The penetration of high-energy particles into living cells can cause chromosome damage, cancer, and a host of other health problems. Large doses can be fatal immediately.

Solar protons with energies greater than 30 MeV are particularly hazardous. In October 1989, the Sun produced enough energetic particles that, if an astronaut were to have been standing on the Moon at the time, wearing only a space suit and caught out in the brunt of the storm, he would probably have died; the expected dose would be about 7000 rem. Note that astronauts who had time to gain safety in a shelter beneath moon soil would have absorbed only slight amounts of radiation.

Solar proton events can also produce elevated radiation aboard aircraft flying at high altitudes. Although these risks are small, monitoring of solar proton events by satellite instrumentation allows the occasional exposure to be monitored and evaluated, and eventually the flight paths and altitudes adjusted in order to lower the absorbed dose of the flight crews.[21][22][23]


Possibly the most closely studied of the variable Sun's biological effects has been the degradation of homing pigeons' navigational abilities during geomagnetic storms. Pigeons and other migratory animals, such as dolphins and whales, demonstrate magnetosensitive behavioral responses that were once thought to be mediated by neurons which contained the mineral magnetite located in the beak. However, the basis of sensory perception of magnetic fields is currently unknown.[24]

Disrupted systems

Odenwald suggests that a geomagnetic storm on the scale of the solar storm of 1859 today would cause billions of dollars of damage to satellites, power grids and radio communications, and could cause electrical blackouts on a massive scale that might not be repaired for weeks. [11]


Many communication systems use the ionosphere to reflect radio signals over long distances. Ionospheric storms can affect radio communication at all latitudes. Some radio frequencies are absorbed and others are reflected, leading to rapidly fluctuating signals and unexpected propagation paths. TV and commercial radio stations are little affected by solar activity, but ground-to-air, ship-to-shore, shortwave broadcast, and amateur radio (mostly the bands below 30 MHz) are frequently disrupted. Radio operators using HF bands rely upon solar and geomagnetic alerts to keep their communication circuits up and running.

Some military detection or early warning systems are also affected by solar activity. The over-the-horizon radar bounces signals off the ionosphere to monitor the launch of aircraft and missiles from long distances. During geomagnetic storms, this system can be severely hampered by radio clutter. Some submarine detection systems use the magnetic signatures of submarines as one input to their locating schemes. Geomagnetic storms can mask and distort these signals.

The Federal Aviation Administration routinely receives alerts of solar radio bursts so that they can recognize communication problems and avoid unnecessary maintenance. When an aircraft and a ground station are aligned with the Sun, jamming of air-control radio frequencies can occur. This can also happen when an Earth station, a satellite, and the Sun are in alignment. In order to prevent unnecessary maintenance on satellite communications systems aboard aircraft AirSatOne provides a live feed for Geophysical Events from NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center. AirSatOne's live feed [25] allows users to view observed and predicted space storms. Geophysical Alerts are important to flight crews and maintenance personnel to determine if any upcoming activity or history has or will have an effect on satellite communications, GPS navigation and HF Communications.

The telegraph lines in the past were affected by geomagnetic storms as well. The telegraphs used a single long wire for the data line, stretching for many miles, using ground as the return wire and being fed with DC power from a battery; this made them (together with the power lines mentioned below) susceptible to being influenced by the fluctuations caused by the ring current. The voltage/current induced by the geomagnetic storm could have led to diminishing of the signal, when subtracted from the battery polarity, or to overly strong and spurious signals when added to it; some operators in such cases even learned to disconnect the battery and rely on the induced current as their power source. In extreme cases the induced current was so high the coils at the receiving side burst in flames, or the operators received electric shocks. Geomagnetic storms affect also long-haul telephone lines, including undersea cables unless they are fiber optic.[26]

Damage to communications satellites can disrupt non-terrestrial telephone, television, radio, and Internet links.[27] The National Academy of Sciences reported in 2008 on possible scenarios of widespread disruption in the 2012–2013 solar peak.[28]

Navigation systems

Systems such as GPS, LORAN, and the now-defunct OMEGA are adversely affected when solar activity disrupts their signal propagation. The OMEGA system consisted of eight transmitters located throughout the world. Airplanes and ships used the very low frequency signals from these transmitters to determine their positions. During solar events and geomagnetic storms, the system gave navigators information that is inaccurate by as much as several miles. If navigators had been alerted that a proton event or geomagnetic storm was in progress, they could have switched to a backup system.

GPS signals are affected when solar activity causes sudden variations in the density of the ionosphere, causing the GPS signals to scintillate (like a twinkling star). The scintillation of satellite signals during ionospheric disturbances is studied at HAARP during ionospheric modification experiments. It has also been studied at the Jicamarca Radio Observatory.

One technology used to allow GPS receivers to continue to operate in the presence of some confusing signals is Receiver Autonomous Integrity Monitoring (RAIM). However, RAIM is predicated on the assumption that a majority of the GPS constellation is operating properly, and so it is much less useful when the entire constellation is perturbed by global influences such as geomagnetic storms. Even if RAIM detects a loss of integrity in these cases, it may not be able to provide a useful, reliable signal.

Satellite hardware damage

Geomagnetic storms and increased solar ultraviolet emission heat Earth's upper atmosphere, causing it to expand. The heated air rises, and the density at the orbit of satellites up to about 1,000 km (621 mi) increases significantly. This results in increased drag on satellites in space, causing them to slow and change orbit slightly. Unless Low Earth Orbit satellites are routinely boosted to higher orbits, they slowly fall, and eventually burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

Skylab is an example of a spacecraft reentering Earth's atmosphere prematurely in 1979 as a result of higher-than-expected solar activity. During the great geomagnetic storm of March 1989, four of the Navy's navigational satellites had to be taken out of service for up to a week, the U.S. Space Command had to post new orbital elements for over 1000 objects affected, and the Solar Maximum Mission satellite fell out of orbit in December the same year.

The vulnerability of the satellites depends on their position as well. The South Atlantic Anomaly is a perilous place for a satellite to pass through.

As technology has allowed spacecraft components to become smaller, their miniaturized systems have become increasingly vulnerable to the more energetic solar particles. These particles can cause physical damage to microchips and can change software commands in satellite-borne computers.

Another problem for satellite operators is differential charging. During geomagnetic storms, the number and energy of electrons and ions increase. When a satellite travels through this energized environment, the charged particles striking the spacecraft cause different portions of the spacecraft to be differentially charged. Eventually, electrical discharges can arc across spacecraft components, harming and possibly disabling them.

Bulk charging (also called deep charging) occurs when energetic particles, primarily electrons, penetrate the outer covering of a satellite and deposit their charge in its internal parts. If sufficient charge accumulates in any one component, it may attempt to neutralize by discharging to other components. This discharge is potentially hazardous to the satellite's electronic systems.

Geologic exploration

Earth's magnetic field is used by geologists to determine subterranean rock structures. For the most part, these geodetic surveyors are searching for oil, gas, or mineral deposits. They can accomplish this only when Earth's field is quiet, so that true magnetic signatures can be detected. Other geophysicists prefer to work during geomagnetic storms, when strong variations in the Earth's normal subsurface electric currents allow them to sense subsurface oil or mineral structures. This technique is called magnetotellurics. For these reasons, many surveyors use geomagnetic alerts and predictions to schedule their mapping activities.

Electric grid

When magnetic fields move about in the vicinity of a conductor such as a wire, a geomagnetically induced current is produced in the conductor. This happens on a grand scale during geomagnetic storms (the same mechanism also influences telephone and telegraph lines, see above) on all long transmission lines. Long transmission lines (many kilometers in length) are thus subject to damage by this effect. Notably, this chiefly includes operators in China, North America, and Australia, especially in more modern high-voltage, low-resistance lines. The European grid consists mainly of shorter transmission circuits, which are less vulnerable to damage.[29][30]

The (nearly direct) currents induced in these lines from geomagnetic storms are harmful to electrical transmission equipment, especially transformers — inducing core saturation, constraining their performance (as well as tripping various safety devices), and causing coils and cores to heat up. In extreme cases, this heat can disable or destroy them, even inducing a chain reaction that can overload transformers throughout a system.[31][32][33] Most generators are connected to the grid via transformers, isolating them from the induced currents on the grid, making them much less susceptible to damage due to geomagnetically induced current. However, a transformer that is subjected to this will act as an unbalanced load to the generator, causing negative sequence current in the stator and consequently heating of the rotor.

According to a study by Metatech corporation, a storm with a strength comparable to that of 1921 would destroy more than 300 transformers and leave over 130 million people without power, with a cost totaling several trillion dollars.[34] A massive solar flare could knock out electric power for months.[35] These predictions are contradicted by a NERC report that concludes that a geomagnetic storm would cause temporary grid instability but no widespread destruction of high-voltage transformers. The report points out that the widely quoted Quebec grid collapse was not caused by overheating transformers but by the near-simultaneous tripping of seven relays.[36]

By receiving geomagnetic storm alerts and warnings (e.g. by the Space Weather prediction Center; via Space Weather satellites as SOHO or ACE), power companies can minimize damage to power transmission equipment, by momentarily disconnecting transformers or by inducing temporary blackouts. Preventative measures also exist, including preventing the inflow of GICs into the grid through the neutral-to-ground connection.[29]


Rapidly fluctuating geomagnetic fields can produce geomagnetically induced currents in pipelines. This can cause multiple problems for pipeline engineers. Flow meters in the pipeline can transmit erroneous flow information, and the corrosion rate of the pipeline is dramatically increased.[37][38] If engineers incorrectly attempt to balance the current during a geomagnetic storm, corrosion rates may increase even more. Once again, pipeline managers thus receive space weather alerts and warnings to allow them to implement defensive measures.


Magnetometers monitor the auroral zone as well as the equatorial region. Two types of radar — coherent scatter and incoherent scatter — are used to probe the auroral ionosphere. By bouncing signals off ionospheric irregularities (which convect with their field lines) one can trace their motion and infer magnetospheric convection.

Spacecraft instruments include:

  • Magnetometers, usually of the flux gate type. Usually these are at the end of booms, to keep them away from magnetic interference by the spacecraft and its electric circuits.[39]
  • Electric sensors at the ends of opposing booms are used to measure potential differences between separated points, to derive electric field associated with convection. The method works best at high plasma densities in low Earth orbit; far from Earth long booms are needed, to avoid shielding-out of electric forces.
  • Radio sounders from the ground can bounce radio waves of varying frequency off the ionosphere, and by timing their return get the profile of electron density in the ionosphere — up to its peak, past which radio waves no longer return. Radio sounders in low Earth orbit aboard the Canadian Alouette 1 (1962) and Alouette 2 (1965), beamed radio waves earthward and observed the electron density profile of the "topside ionosphere." Other radio sounding methods were also tried in the ionosphere (e.g. on IMAGE).

Computers have made it possible to bring together decades of isolated magnetic observations and extract average patterns of electrical currents and average responses to interplanetary variations. They also run simulations of the global magnetosphere and its responses, by solving the equations of magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) on a numerical grid. Appropriate extensions must be added to cover the inner magnetosphere, where magnetic drifts and ionospheric conduction also need to be taken into account. So far the results are difficult to interpret, and certain assumptions are still needed to cover small-scale phenomena.

See also


Further reading

  • Carlowicz, M., and R. Lopez, Storms from the Sun, Joseph Henry Press, 2002, [8]
  • Odenwald, S., 2003, "The Human Impacts of Space Weather",
  • Stoupel, E., (1999) Effect of geomagnetic activity on cardiovascular parameters, Journal of Clinical and Basic Cardiology, 2, Issue 1, 1999, pp 34–40. IN James A. Marusek (2007) Solar Storm Threat Analysis, Impact, Bloomfield, Indiana 47424
  • Volland, H., (1984), "Atmospheric Electrodynamics", Kluwer Publ., Dordrecht

Related websites

Websites relating to coping with or measuring solar storms

  • Solar Cycle 24 and VHF Aurora Website (
  • Live solar and geomagnetic activity data (
  • Space Science News.
  • NOAA.
  • NOAA.
  • NOAA.
  • NASA May 6, 2008
  • Ionosphere and thermosphere response to geomagnetic storm simulated by a Coupled Magnetosphere Ionosphere Thermosphere model
  • SSC automatic alert system (experimental, broadcast on Twitter)
  • AirSatOne:Recent Geophysical Alert Messages

Aurora Watch, at Lancaster University, gives email warnings of coronal mass ejections and geomagnetic storms for aurora watching enthusiasts:


Power grid related links

  • Geomagnetic Storm Induced HVAC Transformer Failure is Avoidable
  • NOAA Economics — Geomagnetic Storm datasets and Economic Research
  • Geomagnetic Storms Can Threaten Electric Power Grid