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Cannibal Coronal Mass Ejection on Collision Course with Earth

The solar storms are eating each other now.

By Cassidy Ward
NASA image of a solar flare

Sometimes the universe conspires to hit you with a one-two punch you couldn’t possibly have been prepared for. That’s the situation for the unfortunate characters of the Sun-inspired disaster flick Solar Attack, streaming on Peacock. See, they’ve let climate change get way out of control, raising methane concentrations from their real-world levels of 0.00017% to a staggering 5%. That’s bad enough, but with enough time, scientists might have cooked up a plan to get atmospheric methane back to ordinary levels. Unfortunately, they don’t have that opportunity, because a violent coronal mass ejection (CME) ripped from the surface of the Sun is on its way and it’s going to set the sky on fire.

In the real world, we’re about to be on the receiving end of a similar (albeit less catastrophic) one-two punch from the Sun, and it should hit the planet today.

Two Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) for the Price of One

The Sun is creeping up on the end of Solar Cycle 25, when its solar activity will peak, its electromagnetic field will flip, and then it will calm down for a few years. The major consequence of Solar Maximum is an uptick in solar activity like flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

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As solar activity increases, the threads of the Sun’s electromagnetic field get tangled and twisted up. If they get so twisted that they can’t withstand the pressure anymore, they realign themselves in a less stressful formation. The process, known as magnetic reconnection, sometimes severs the tangled parts of the magnetic field, releasing them and any plasma they are holding onto into space. That’s a CME.

These massive eruptions can carry billions of tons of charged plasma at speeds ranging from 250 to 3,000 kilometers per second. Depending on their size, that means scientists have advanced warning of their arrival ranging from hours to days.

On July 14, astronomers observed a small sunspot called AR3370 erupt, launching a CME toward the Earth. The next day, another CME erupted from the larger sunspot AR3363. That second CME was also pointed toward Earth and travelling much faster. The result is a rare cannibal CME, which occurs when a fast CME consumes a smaller one on its way toward us.

Each of the bursts were moderate in size and wouldn’t have garnered much attention on their own. Together, however, they are expected to trigger a substantial geomagnetic storm. Simulations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggest the combined wave of plasma should have impact the atmosphere yesterday. Fortunately, this is the sort of double tap we should recover from without too much trouble.

Catch Solar Attack and a huge collection of other disaster movies, streaming now on Peacock!