The geomagnetic superstorm of May 10, 2024, did more than spark some of the best auroras in 500 years. It also electrified our planet.

“Our sensors measured a significant change in atmospheric electricity,” reports Gang Li, a space physicist at the University of Alabama. “Earth’s entire global electrical circuit was affected by the storm.”

Credit: K. A. Nicoll's 2014 review paper "Space Weather influences on Atmospheric Electricity"
Credit: K. A. Nicoll’s 2014 review paper “Space Weather influences on Atmospheric Electricity”

Yes, Earth has a “global electrical circuit.” It is created by thunderstorms, which build up a charge difference between the ground and the ionosphere 50 km overhead. There are about 40,000 thunderstorms per day all over the Earth, and we can think of them as batteries pumping the electricity to the top of the atmosphere. The resulting voltage drop is a staggering 250,000 volts.

On its own, air is not a great conductor of electricity. However, cosmic rays from deep space ionize our atmosphere, creating just enough conductivity for currents to flow in response to those 250,000 volts. The very air you breath is thus electrified.

In April 2024, Li and colleagues published a paper in the journal Space Weather about solar storms and the global electric circuit. They described how CMEs approaching Earth can sweep aside cosmic rays. This is called a “Forbush Decrease” named after American physicist Scott Forbush who studied cosmic rays in the early 20th century. During a Forbush Decrease, fewer cosmic rays are available to ionize Earth’s atmosphere which, in turn, changes the conductivity of the entire global electrical circuit.

The CME that hit Earth on May 10, 2024, caused a very large Forbush Decrease. “It was a boon to our research,” says Li.

space weather alters electric field on Earth
space weather alters electric field on Earth

Li and colleagues checked two electric field monitoring stations at the CASLEO observatory in Argentina–a site they had previously used to monitor the global electrical circuit. During the superstorm, electric fields jumped 10% to 15%, an increase that lasted for more than four days. “This is in good accord with what we would have predicted based on our paper,” he says.

Such changes in atmospheric electricity can affect many things ranging from the probability of rain and lightning to the flight paths of ballooning spiders, which ride electric fields through the air. Indeed, arachnids may have known of this link all along, but humans are only learning about it now. Read Li’s original research here.

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