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Northern lights have a dark side, Nasa scientists warn as they reveal damage at ground level every time displays occur

Northern lights have a dark side, Nasa scientists warn as they reveal damage at ground level every time displays occur

NASA scientists have warned of a hidden dark side to the dazzling Northern Lights.

The visual phenomena, also called Aurora Borealis, can cause long term damage to critical infrastructure at ground level.

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The risk of damage to core infrastructure is heighted during severe geomagnetic stormsCredit: Alamy
Aurora can damage any form of infrastructure that conducts electricity on Earth, according to the new research paper

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Aurora can damage any form of infrastructure that conducts electricity on Earth, according to the new research paperCredit: Alamy

The impact of Aurora on Earth’s electrical grid and satellites during big geomagnetic storms has long been documented.

But Nasa scientists have now revealed that the electrical currents associated with geomagnetic storms can damage natural gas pipelines and subsea cables.

Writing in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences, Nasa scientists have warned that Northern Lights are quietly reducing the lifetime of pipelines that supply homes with heating and electricity globally.

WHAT CAUSES THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?

According to Nasa, Auroras are caused by two processes:

Solar flares

Solar flares of coronal mass ejections (CMEs) produce vivid Auroras when particles from the sun are spat out and reach Earth’s magnetic field.

The interaction between these particles from the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field is called a geomagnetic storm, and it’s what causes the breathtaking display.

Interplanetary shocks

Interplanetary shocks, also known as solar wind pressure pulses, can compress Earth’s magnetic field and create Auroras.

Aurora can damage any form of infrastructure that conducts electricity on Earth, according to the new research paper.

While more powerful shocks mean more powerful currents and vivid auroras, frequent and less powerful shocks can also do damage.

“Auroras and geomagnetically induced currents are caused by similar space weather drivers,” Dr Denny Oliveira of Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, lead author of the article, explained.

“The aurora is a visual warning that indicates that electric currents in space can generate these geomagnetically induced currents on the ground.”

The risk of damage to core infrastructure is heighted during severe geomagnetic storms.

The most recent severe geomagnetic storm occurred in May 2024, when we saw a drastic increase in Northern Lights sightings in areas that don’t typically see them.

Scientists dubbed it the most severe storm of the past two decades.

“Arguably, the most intense deleterious effects on power infrastructure occurred in March 1989 following a severe geomagnetic storm — the Hydro-Quebec system in Canada was shut down for nearly nine hours, leaving millions of people with no electricity,” Oliveira added.

“But weaker, more frequent events such as interplanetary shocks can pose threats to ground conductors over time.

“Our work shows that considerable geoelectric currents occur quite frequently after shocks, and they deserve attention.”

The team reckon they can predict the angles of these shocks up to two hours before they impact Earth

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The team reckon they can predict the angles of these shocks up to two hours before they impact EarthCredit: TWITTER / @ST0NEHENGE

PREDICTING WHEN THEY STRIKE

Head-on interplanetary shocks produce stronger geomagnetic currents than angled shocks, scientists explained.

The team reckon they can predict the angles of these shocks up to two hours before they impact Earth.

This would give electrical grids a head start at protecting vulnerable infrastructure before the strongest shocks strike.

One thing power infrastructure operators could do to safeguard their equipment is to manage a few specific electric circuits when a shock alert is issued

Dr Denny Oliveira of Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre

“One thing power infrastructure operators could do to safeguard their equipment is to manage a few specific electric circuits when a shock alert is issued,” Oliveira continued.

“This would prevent geomagnetically induced currents reducing the lifetime of the equipment.”

The Nasa team has urged power companies to make their data accessible for scientists to study.

They said the data currently available to them is not enough.

“Current data was collected only at a particular location, namely the Mäntsälä natural gas pipeline system,” Oliveira warned.

“Although Mäntsälä is at a critical location, it does not provide a worldwide picture.

Read more on the Scottish Sun

“In addition, the Mäntsälä data is missing several days in the period investigated, which forced us to discard many events in our shock database.

“It would be nice to have worldwide power companies make their data accessible to scientists for studies.”

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