The more explosive CMEs generally begin when highly twisted magnetic field structures (flux ropes) contained in the Sun’s lower corona become too stressed and realign into a less tense configuration – a process called magnetic reconnection. This can result in the sudden release of electromagnetic energy in the form of a solar flare; which typically accompanies the explosive acceleration of plasma away from the Sun – the CME. These types of CMEs usually take place from areas of the Sun with localized fields of strong and stressed magnetic flux; such as active regions associated with sunspot groups. CMEs can also occur from locations where relatively cool and denser plasma is trapped and suspended by magnetic flux extending up to the inner corona - filaments and prominences. When these flux ropes reconfigure, the denser filament or prominence can collapse back to the solar surface and be quietly reabsorbed, or a CME may result. CMEs travelling faster than the background solar wind speed can generate a shock wave. These shock waves can accelerate charged particles ahead of them – causing increased radiation storm potential or intensity.
Important CME parameters used in analysis are size, speed, and direction. These properties are inferred from orbital satellites’ coronagraph imagery by SWPC forecasters to determine any Earth-impact likelihood. The NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) carries a coronagraph – known as the Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO). This instrument has two ranges for optical imaging of the Sun’s corona: C2 (covers distance range of 1.5 to 6 solar radii) and C3 (range of 3 to 32 solar radii). The LASCO instrument is currently the primary means used by forecasters to analyze and categorize CMEs; however another coronagraph is on the NASA STEREO-A spacecraft as an additional source.
Imminent CME arrival is first observed by the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite, located at the L1 orbital area. Sudden increases in density, total interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) strength, and solar wind speed at the DSCOVR spacecraft indicate arrival of the CME-associated interplanetary shock ahead of the magnetic cloud. This can often provide 15 to 60 minutes advanced warning of shock arrival at Earth – and any possible sudden impulse or sudden storm commencement; as registered by Earth-based magnetometers.
Important aspects of an arriving CME and its likelihood for causing more intense geomagnetic storming include the strength and direction of the IMF beginning with shock arrival, followed by arrival and passage of the plasma cloud and frozen-in-flux magnetic field. More intense levels of geomagnetic storming are favored when the CME enhanced IMF becomes more pronounced and prolonged in a south-directed orientation. Some CMEs show predominantly one direction of the magnetic field during its passage, while most exhibit changing field directions as the CME passes over Earth. Generally, CMEs that impact Earth’s magnetosphere will at some point have an IMF orientation that favors generation of geomagnetic storming. Geomagnetic storms are classified using a five-level NOAA Space Weather Scale. SWPC forecasters discuss analysis and geomagnetic storm potential of CMEs in the forecast discussion and predict levels of geomagnetic storming in the 3-day forecast.
*Images courtesy of NASA and the SOHO and STEREO missions
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