RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Halloween is the time of year when ghosts and ghouls roam the streets across the United States. Horror movies are played days before this spooky night, depicting scary stories on a small or large screen.
Unlike the storm seen in the latest Stranger Things season, however, this terrifying storm tinted skies green in the United States and came from space days before Halloween in 2003. The NOAA Space Environment Center, now the Space Weather Prediction Center, sent a flurry of alerts, watches, and warnings to inform the public of these massive storms.
Appropriately dubbed, ‘Halloween Space Weather Storms of 2003,’ solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the Sun erupted from the surface and affected the Earth. These were some of the most powerful solar storms ever recorded.
Seventeen major flares, or intense bursts of radiation, erupted from the magnetic energy associated with three distinct sunspots on the sun’s surface. Along with strong energetic particle events, many of these flares were accompanied by coronal mass ejections (plasma and magnetic field ejections). Some of the particles released by these ejections reached the Earth’s magnetic field within a day.
These flares occurred three years after the peak of Solar Cycle 23 in April 2000, during a time when solar activity was decreasing. It was an average solar cycle and solar storms like these are rare, even during the peak of a cycle.
Strong solar activity began on October 19 and ended November 7, 2003, with one of the more notable ejections befalling October 28. A large mass of electrically conducting solar wind was shot into space towards the Earth. A geomagnetic storm formed less than a day later on October 29 as the solar wind disrupted Earth’s magnetic field.
During the Halloween storms, major radio blackouts occurred, companies that relied on GPS accuracy for drilling operations and marine survey operations were canceled or delayed, and according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “numerous anomalies were reported by deepspace missions and by satellites at all orbits.”
Some airlines had to adjust their routes and fly at lower latitudes to avoid high radiation levels and communication blackouts. System operators made adjustments to prevent electric-power grid blackouts across North America. Even astronauts at the International Space Station had to take shelter within certain areas of the space station to avoid excessive levels of radiation. The effect of the storms was strong enough to increase the Aurora Borealis south to Florida, lighting up the skies in a greenish hue.
While the use of technology has increased and could be at risk during geomagnetic storms, so is our understanding of space weather and its impacts on Earth. Agencies such as the United States Geological Survey (USGS), NOAA, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) continue to monitor ‘space weather’ conditions.