SEE: South Africans marvel over southern lights as geomagnetic storm hits Earth

Posted on 13 May 2024 By Savanna Douglas

Over the weekend, a historic solar storm made its grand appearance, painting the Earth’s skies with an unusual glow – the extent of which was witnessed by thousands across the globe, even in South Africa. 

Geomagnetic storms occur when charged particles from the Sun, propelled by a coronal mass ejection (CME), collide with Earth’s magnetic field.

Over the course of the weekend (Friday and Saturday), The South African National Space Agency (SANSA) issued several G4 warnings and, for the first time since 2003, one G5 warning was issued.

These are readings on the geomagnetic storm scale that indicate the severity of geomagnetic storms, rated from 1 to 5, with 1 a minor event and 5 an extreme event.

“Although the likelihood of such a storm occurring is quite low, the severity of the impacts on technological systems can be very high. The energy and transport sectors are particularly vulnerable at the moment,” said Jon Ward, acting Executive Director at SANSA Space Science in Hermanus in a statement. 

Ward noted that this is the largest geomagnetic storm that has been observed since over two decades ago, in 2003.

Understanding the significance of such geomagnetic storms requires grasping the nature of space weather, notes SANSA, in an explainer video about space weather uploaded to YouTube.

Our Earth orbits around the Sun, our life-giving star, which emits vast amounts of particles, radiation, and energy into space. Solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CMEs), and storms are common occurrences on the Sun’s surface, contributing to space weather.

The Sun follows an approximately 11-year cycle, transitioning between solar minimum and solar maximum phases. During solar minimum, solar activity is at its lowest, while solar maximum sees heightened activity.

As we edge towards the solar maximum expected in 2025, solar storms and flares may occur more frequently, says SANSA.

When a CME interacts with Earth’s magnetic field, it triggers a geomagnetic storm, causing temporary disturbances. These disturbances, although harmless to humans due to Earth’s protective magnetic field, pose risks to astronauts, aviation, and satellite systems.

While these storms do primarily affect technological systems, they also gift us with the breathtaking auroras, both in the north and the south.

In the Southern Hemisphere over the weekend, reports poured in from various regions in South Africa and Namibia, with sightings of the Aurora Australis, commonly known as the Southern Lights.

Silver-Streams Self Catering Accommodation and Caravan Park, based in the Underberg region, shared the following:

“Last night/this mornings airglow and auroras from Cape Town! Started shooting at 3:30am and wrapped at 6:30.. Sadly missed some of the best of it but happy with what we got! Holding thumbs for tonight,” wrote Gianluca de Gasparis in a Facebook post on Saturday, sharing footage of the warm, red glow of the Southern Lights.


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A post shared by Hugh-Daniel Grobler (@hdgrobler)

Feature Image: Facebook / Steven Shannon

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