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'Cannibal' coronal mass ejection will hit Earth at nearly 2 million mph, scientists say

The dazzling northern lights could light up the skies as far south as the northern United States after the detection of 17 solar eruptions blasting from a single sunspot, two of which are headed straight to Earth.

The two Earth-directed eruptions have merged into a "cannibal coronal mass ejection" and are barreling toward us at 1,881,263 mph (3,027,599 km/h). When it crashes into the Earth's magnetic field, beginning from the night of March 30 through to April 1, the result will be a powerful G3 geomagnetic storm, according to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC). G3 storms are classified as strong geomagnetic storms, meaning that the oncoming sun blast could bring the aurora as south as Pennsylvania, Iowa and Oregon.

The sunspot, called AR2975, has been shooting out flares of electrically charged particles from the sun's plasma soup since Monday (March 28). Sunspots are areas on the sun's surface where powerful magnetic fields, created by the flow of electrical charges, knot into kinks before suddenly snapping. The resulting release of energy launches bursts of radiation called solar flares, or explosive jets of solar material called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). 

Related: Strange new type of solar wave defies physics

Cannibal coronal mass ejections happen when fast-moving solar eruptions overtake earlier eruptions in the same region of space, sweeping up charged particles to form a giant, combined wavefront that triggers a powerful geomagnetic storm.

The "frenzy" of solar flares meant that "at least two full-halo [Earth striking] CMEs emerged from the chaos," SpaceWeather.com wrote of the event. The second CME is expected to overtake and "cannibalize" the first before hitting Earth's magnetic field at around 11 p.m. ET time on March 30.

CME's usually take around 15 to 18 hours to reach Earth, according to the SWPC. When they do, the Earth's magnetic field gets compressed slightly by the waves of highly energetic particles, which ripple down magnetic field lines and agitate molecules in the atmosphere, releasing energy in the form of light to create colorful auroras in the night sky.

The energy from the storm is expected to be harmlessly absorbed by our magnetic field, but large solar storms still have the potential to wreak havoc. G3 storms can cause "intermittent satellite navigation and low-frequency radio navigation problems," according to SWPC. A recent storm in February sent 40 Starlink satellites tumbling back to Earth, Live Science previously reported, and scientists have warned that an even larger one could have the potential to cripple the internet across the globe.

Scientists think that the largest ever solar storm witnessed during contemporary history was the 1859 Carrington Event, which carried roughly the same energy as 10 billion 1-megaton atomic bombs. After slamming into the Earth, the powerful stream of solar particles fried telegraph systems all over the world and caused auroras brighter than the light of the full moon to appear as far south as the Caribbean. If a similar event happened today, it would cause trillions of dollars in damage and widespread blackouts, much like the solar storm which caused the 1989 Quebec blackout, according to scientists.

Originally published on Live Science.

Ben Turner
Ben Turner

Ben Turner is a U.K. based staff writer at Live Science. He covers physics and astronomy, among other topics like tech and climate change. He graduated from University College London with a degree in particle physics before training as a journalist. When he's not writing, Ben enjoys reading literature, playing the guitar and embarrassing himself with chess.