Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NewsNight with Abby Phillip

Massive Solar Storm Hitting Earth in Historic Space Event; Extreme Geomagnetic Storm Underway, First in 20 Years; Solar Storm Hitting Earth, Making Northern Lights Visible. Aired 10-11p ET

Aired May 10, 2024 - 22:00   ET



KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN HOST: A good night of sleep. And, you know, we heard from Paul Whelan and an American who was saying that he was worried that -- he was worried about what this could mean. Obviously, that's something we'll monitor very closely. And Melody Jones, if you hear anything, please, please let us know.


COLLINS: Thank you. Thank you for coming on and for joining us tonight.

JONES: No. I had something else I wanted to touch on real quick.

COLLINS: Go ahead, but we just have a few seconds.

JONES: Oh, okay. The Army kept sending him there knowing this was going on, the violence and stuff. And they kept sending him back to South Korea. So, I just wanted to touch on that real quick.

COLLINS: Melody Jones, we'll continue to stay in touch with you. Thank you so much for joining us tonight.

And thank you all so much for joining us. CNN's special coverage of that solar storm starts right now on NewsNight.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: A historic event is underway tonight as a dazzling display of solar flares are right now painting the sky. Welcome to a special edition of NewsNight. I'm Abby Phillip in New York alongside Bill Weir.

And it is a first in nearly two decades. A warning from the government and weather watchers, the solar storm that is now rated a G5 or extreme as of right now on the East Coast is underway.

BILL WEIR, CNN CHIEF CLIMATE CORRESPONDENT: This is a blast of solar energy ricocheting across the United States, a rare moment where you can look up and see the northern lights visible from coast to coast. Normally, you got to go to Northern Alaska or Iceland, but now you can see them as far south as Alabama tonight. But it does have some potentially far-reaching disruptions to our infrastructure and our way of life, Abby. What you can see in places as the auroras are dipping into pallets and splashes of blue and green, their purple haze sort of on a black canvas, which you don't see the real threat to the things that let us make phone calls or get directions, from slamming into each other or letting each other connect for national security or shipping or supply chains or let us beam this programming right into your living room.

PHILLIP: So, over the next two hours, CNN will tell you everything you need to know as only CNN can. We have a full roster of experts, weather forecasters, space meteorologists the science guy, astrophysicists, aurora hunters, and all the best glimpses from CNN affiliates around the world, and, of course from you. We've also got Bill Weir here for the entire two hours.

But let's get started with CNN's Chad Myers in the Weather Center with more on what this storm is exactly and what we can expect. Chad, this is a little bit of a different assignment for you than usual. You're up in space instead of giving us the weather. So, what should we know?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: When we were looking at the sun about four or five days ago, we noticed the sunspot getting very, very active. And it is 17 now, 17 times the size of the diameter of the Earth. So, that's how big this thing is. And it started to get active. And then all of a sudden we got a coronal mass ejection, an ejection of plasma that came right toward the Earth.

How do we know that it came toward the Earth? Because if it went this way, it'd be well off to our west. But we see a halo of plasma and knows that like a puff of smoke getting blown at you and you want to get out of the way. When you see it all around you, you know it's headed in your direction. So, that's how we know that this is headed toward Earth. And now there are more than one of these CMEs, coronal mass ejections, headed toward Earth, in fact, probably even six more.

Things have calmed down just a little bit. I was really looking at Europe about an hour ago and things were purple everywhere. But another ejection will hit the Earth likely around midnight tonight. So, if you're not seeing what you thought you were going to see, just wait an hour or two.

A couple of things going on right now, we're still watching this. We're watching for the polarity or the north south axis of this coronal mass ejection, which, by the way, is moving at 1.7 million miles per hour. Keep that in mind when you're thinking about, wow, this is kind of really headed our direction, but we're watching this little red dot here.

This is the polarity of the coronal mass ejection when it's below the line. That's when we really get the coronas to light up. So, for a while today, it was above and things calmed down. But now that we're going back down and the polarities coming in from the south. Those northern lights are going to get busy and very, very pretty.

WEIR: Chad, I think a lot of folks don't realize there is a rating system for solar storms the way there is for tornadoes. You were worried about F3, F4, F5 tornadoes last week. Now this is a G5 storm. Explain this and put it in context in recent history.

MYERS: Yes, we're five of five and we talk about that even with the risk of severe weather. There's a level three of five risk or four or five, and we've had some fours this week and even a five for the high risk of severe weather. Well, we have five of five now for this severe storm and the auroras are going to be farther to the south, but power outages are likely.


Anything that's long in metal will begin to gather this plasma that's out there and start to even -- pipelines will begin to don't touch them kind of thing. We have lots of amperage in pipelines if they're exposed to the air. Satellite disruptions, I think, are probably likely, without a doubt. The plasma, the power coming from the sun more is powerful than the power coming from the satellite itself.

Here's a little something though that disturbs me just a second. We are supposed to be today down here in this active category. That's not where we are. We are way up here. Then the forecast for tomorrow was to be where we're right now. What happens tomorrow? Does it even go higher? Do we get to the nine? Do we get to that 9K index? It's still going to be a G5. But if you're all the way down to the south, you are going to see this. If you have cloud cover today, don't worry about it because this is not like an eclipse. This is a multiday event.

PHILLIP: Well, for those of us who want to see a little something here in New York, that might be good news. We've got a cloudy day here. So, for those of you waiting, we've got a whole weekend ahead.

Chad, thanks very much. We'll check in with you shortly.

Again, this extreme five out of five, as you heard Chad say, geomagnetic storm, it is the strongest in more than 20 years.

Joining us now is Shawn Dahl. He is the senior forecaster at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center. Sean, this storm is at the highest level of the scale that we have to measure these things. So, based on what you've seen so far of the activity and the skies or other metrics that you might have that I'm sure are much more sophisticated, what do you rate this storm as in terms of its intensity?

SHAWN DAHL, SENIOR SPACE WEATHER FORECASTER, NOAA'S SPACE WEATHER PREDICTION CENTER: Hi, thanks for having us on. Glad to share information with all your viewers. This here is one of the quite notable proportions. We haven't seen this level of activity since 2003 with the famous Halloween storms where we last hit this type of category.

And when we get to these G5 levels, as Chad so explained quite well, you know, you can have a G5 level that's just at my head, and you can have a G5 that's several stories up over my head. We are not at that super nasty G5 level. These are low end G5, extreme storms, still quite significant. And that's why we do have the Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado, is to inform all the operators of our technologies that Chad talked about, so they can take the proper measures to make sure things still function as much as possible.

WEIR: Shawn, I don't know if you're a baseball fan. Abby, you're a baseball fan. I'm going to use that metaphor.

PHILLIP: I'll take your word for it.

WEIR: But we know that the odds of getting hit in the nose with a foul ball sitting at a game are pretty, pretty rare. But if you do, it's going to hurt a lot. And it feels like the sun is this power hitter on steroids, just blasting energy out into the galaxy, into our Milky Way stadium, and whether or not it hits our seat section right now is what we're paying attention to. How are you able to predict with precision where it will have the most effect, you know, which grids might be the most vulnerable, which side of the Earth? Like how precise can you get?

DAHL: Yes. It's very difficult to get precision forecasting for something that's global in nature, and some areas of the world may have more of an effect than other areas, even at similar intensities, just because of the variances in earth's protective magnetic barrier, that magnetosphere, which is what's connecting with the sun, by the way, with this piece that flung out towards Earth, this giant magnetic connection which Chad, by the way, explained very well with the direction of them.

So, yes, it's very difficult to forecast space weather storms. I mean, we're dealing with something 93 million miles away and it's extraordinarily difficult to time these. We did a great job knowing that these were going to hit Earth. But our timing was off a bit, and that's no surprise for that vast amount of distance.

PHILLIP: Yes. One of the things we've been hearing everybody talk about is how active the sun has been in this part of the cycle. How do we know when it's going to be really, really bad? I mean, this time you said it's up to your head. But how do we know when it is that two or three-storey level that you just described? We might be talking about a G5 that is completely different from the one that we're talking about today.

DAHL: Yes, Abby, well said. That's correct. We don't really know until the storm emerges so we can forecast and see them emerge from the sun. But then we have to wait. We have to wait until it gets only a million miles from Earth. That's where our first small fleet of satellites are that detect the changes in what we call the solar wind, which Chad was alluding to with the magnetic field. Then we have very little warning time at that point, but we have to wait until then.

So, once we saw it arrive, it arrived like the baseball Bill described hitting you in the face. It struck with force and it immediately started to light up because it was the favorable direction that opposite Earth and it connected.

[22:10:05] And we rapidly rose all the way up through G4 and then we hit G5 here later today, and then, once again, I think afterwards as well.

So, yes, it works that way. And it's on a cycle, an 11-year cycle on average. And right now we are -- the year where we expect the peak to be of this solar maximum for solar cycle 25 is this year or early next year, but, sorry, it doesn't shut off right away. It takes a little while. 2025 and 2026 will still be at risk for these types of storms.

PHILLIP: That's really, really interesting. Shawn Dahl, you've got a really interesting job. I envy you just a little bit. We'll check in with you again. Thank you for joining us.

WEIR: Thank you, Shawn.

DAHL: I didn't know there were space weathermen.

WEIR: You just met one right there. These extraordinary images coming in through social media from around the world as people try to get their first glimpse in many cases of the northern lights, even if they're not that far north. But there are potential hazards associated with this, not to you physically, but our way of life, power grid, communication.

CNN Kristin Fisher joins us now with more on that. Kristin, thanks for being here. What are the biggest concerns that we're worried about tonight?

KRISTIN FISHER, CNN SPACE AND DEFENSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, so as you said, Bill, the biggest concerns don't have anything to do with threats to our actual human bodies, right? I mean, the Earth's magnetosphere acts as kind of an Iron Dome of sorts, you know, kind of deflecting all of those highly charged particles coming from the sun. The biggest dangers have to do with threats to the power grid or threats to the satellites that, you know, contribute so much to our daily lives.

And so the biggest threat probably that folks have been saying specifically with this solar storm is with the power grid. Because when all of those highly charged particles interact with our, magnetosphere and the Earth's magnetosphere, what it does is it can cause surges in voltage. And so the fix for it is kind of like how you would imagine a surge protector to work. The power operators, the critical infrastructure operators have been notified about this. There are theoretically fixes in place, surge protections in place to keep this from really impacting us too much.

But, you know, the last time in 2003 when there was a really big storm, Sweden faced some pretty big power outages, so did South Africa. So, that's certainly something to watch for. And then the other big thing is, of course, the threat to satellites, disturbances to satellites, particularly in low Earth orbit.

Bill and Abby, the one good thing though is they do not anticipate a big disturbance to, you know, our cell phones, because even if there's an issue with the satellite connectivity, you can still connect with cell phone towers here on Earth. And then things like ATMs, that's not expected to be impacted either, unless there's a secondary impact with a power outage associated to that specific ATM machine.

PHILLIP: So, Kristin, normally you are covering what's happening as people are going up into space or what's happening in space. What's going on with NASA right now? You talked about the satellites. There are thousands of them up there. But there are also astronauts up there right now too. How are they preparing for this? How are they dealing with it as it's now underway?

FISHER: Yes. So, you see on your screen right there, there are seven astronauts. There's NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts up at the International Space Station. And while they do get some protection from the Earth's atmosphere, it's certainly not as much as we get here on Earth.

And so there are scenarios where these astronauts, they train for this, they go into certain parts of the International Space Station that are more protected. NASA describes it as having more mass where they can kind of go to and they're not right by a window. They get a bit more protection from those really harmful radiation particles.

But this time NASA says they're not going to take any precautionary measures. They just put out a statement. I want to read it to you, Abby. It says NASA completed a thorough analysis of recent space weather activity and determined it posed no threat to the crew aboard the International Space Station and no additional precautionary measures are needed.

So, some good news there, but, guys, if you all have ever seen the show, For All Mankind, you may remember there's a scene where a big solar storm hits the astronauts up in a futuristic lunar base and they all have to kind of run to take cover, that would happen if you know, NASA's Artemis program goes through, they build a lunar base and then a big solar storm like this comes because the moon doesn't have an atmosphere to protect astronauts on a lunar base like the ISS astronauts do right now.

WEIR: Yet, another one of the hazards of --

PHILLIP: We have to think about now.

WEIR: -- colonizing other planets, one more thing to think about, Kristin.

PHILLIP: I think (INAUDIBLE) that one, Kristin.


WEIR: Thank you so much for that. We'll keep an eye on what things happen tonight and in the coming hours as this happens.

PHILLIP: Yes, I want to bring in now CNN's Paula Newton. She is in Dunrobin, Ontario. That's about 15 miles from the Canadian capital of Ottawa. Paula, you're further north of here. What are you seeing now that you're kind of a little bit a ways from the light pollution in the city?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and that's what I could control for, right, Abby? I could control for the fact that I get away from the city. We're at least here where if we see it, we've got a good eye on it, and Barry, our photojournalist, has an excellent lens. So, we're at the ready.

The issue is, though, I have to break it to you guys, in Canada, the Northern Lights, right, I'm not going to say it's common, but, look, we do see it. You know, whether you're at 60 degrees, 58, 62, it cuts the swath through most of Canada. And so we are kind of used to seeing it even when the solar storm isn't that strong.

So, OK, we controlled for the light pollution. The problem here is still cloud. We are told that in Western Canada, in fact, there should be less cloud cover tonight. I'm still hopeful right where I am right now that we should have a gorgeous display.

Interesting here, normally, we get that green color here. It's actually more of a milky green. So, those gorgeous colors you've seen from England essentially, usually you don't see here but we are ready and waiting and a lot of people will be out on their porches the way I am right now, out on their front and back porches and people waking other people up. Usually, it would be around midnight, 1:00 A.M. Eastern. That's what they're telling us is the most likely time.

You know, as I said, if you talk to many people in Canada, especially outdoorsy people, they'll say that they have seen it, you know, a handful of times in their lives, sometimes many more times than that.

WEIR: Very good. Yes, the old hat to Canadians, but folks in maybe Alabama could get a little glimpse of this thing if things go well.

Paula, thank you so much. We'll check back with you later.

More on our special coverage as we await the peak of the solar storm tonight. Bill Nye the Science Guy joins us next.



WEIR: Welcome back to our special coverage of the extreme solar storm now crossing North America, with the strongest forecast to hit the Earth since 2003.

So, let's break it down with Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Bill, welcome in. it's good to have you with us.

PHILLIP: Hey, Bill.

WEIR: A lot of folks here tonight --

BILL NYE, THE SCIENCE GUY: It's great to be here.

WEIR: Yes. Well, a lot of folks, myself included, it wasn't until the recent total eclipse that I really tried to understand space weather. A lot of folks don't think about it. Every day is sunny in space. There's no, you know, thunderstorms. But explain what is happening and the significance of what we're experiencing at this moment.

NYE: Well, we might think of the sun as a solid object or a disk, but it's spinning about every month. The north and southern parts of the sun, what humans call the north and south parts of the sun, spin a little faster than the middle. And this friction and this interaction with all the gases that make up the outer layers of the sun create these crazy, strong magnetic fields. And from time to time, these charged particles get tossed into space.

And so we have both these solar flares, where these zaps of electromagnetic energy photons that you can see, and in the X-ray region, very high frequency, and these charged particles, both come shooting out away from the surface of the sun. And if the orbit of the Earth is in the place where those things are shooting, we get zapped, if I may.

And, of course, who could forget the Carrington event in 1859, where this sort of thing went on for a week, and it just ruined a lot of telegraph systems, which was the state of the art at that time.

And so the deal is, everybody, the key thing that we have going on here on Earth, which is really good for us living things, is this magnetic field. Inside the Earth is this churning molten iron and nickel, and it creates this magnetic field that enables your compass to work, what have you. And so this is what causes the charged particles to come down at the North and South Pole, down toward the middle of the Earth.

And it's the speed of those particles passing through the atmosphere that creates the aurora, the aurora borealis and aurora australis. And so it's fantastic, and you guys have been talking about it, and I'm out west here, and when it gets dark, I'm going to be looking, I'm going to be watching, where you have clear skies tonight.

But the other thing, everybody, that is a real danger to our technological society, different from 1859, is how much we depend on electricity and our electronics and so on. And, you know, it was a pretty straight forward bunch of things that went wrong in Texas back in February of 2021, where the power went out and it affected an enormous number of people.

Well, we probably have systems in place to manage this interaction of these charged particles with Earth's magnetic field. But stuff might go wrong the way it did back in 2003 in South Africa, for example.


And this is another thing where we need to evaluate our electrical grid and prepare for this sort of deal, because the sun doesn't take a meeting about when it's going to produce one of these things. PHILLIP: Yes. I mean, do you think that as we are becoming -- I mean, it seems to me we're just becoming much more reliant on these things, devices and whatnot, everything is electric. This is not the days of the telegraph. I mean, do you think we are becoming more susceptible to the effects of a really powerful solar storm, or are we becoming more resilient? Where are we in that right now?

NYE: The answer is absolutely without question, it depends. It depends on the strength of the event and it depends how much infrastructure -- how much of our infrastructure we have prepared this sort of thing.

You've probably heard somebody remind each other that the safest place to be in a lightning storm is in a car. Because the metal of the car makes the energy from the lightning go around the passengers inside. And then it's on rubber tires is not irrelevant effect. But we don't have infrastructure on all of our transformers.

I say this because on a competitive network, I did a T.V. show, The End is Nye, where we did six world ending scenarios, where the one that really worries me is this very one, this one show, episode number three, where we get these coronal mass ejections, CMEs, back-to-back. So, if you had really big ones, like he was talking about a third- storey G5, whoa, except in space there's no sound, it would just be. And these things, if they happen 12 hours apart, hypothetically, you could turn off the electricity in the whole world, which would be catastrophic.

You know, none of us really in the developed world could go very long without electricity. Oh, you can -- there's survivalists and so on, but just, objectively, if nothing else, the refrigeration goes bad, and we spoil enormous amounts of food.

But all this is -- this is all solvable, you guys.

WEIR: And medication.

NYE: This is all something we understand, the Earth's magnetic field interacting with the charged particles.

NYE: But worth worrying about, Bill, even though chances are rare, one study looked back, there was -- in addition to the Carrington event, there was another big one in 1921 that, you know, started fires in telegraph stations because the electricity was so powerful. They did a study that said if that happened now, given our grid, it would cause a $1 to $2 trillion in damage, could take four to ten years to come back from, 160 million Americans could be affected. And the geology of the East Coast actually makes it more conducive to these sorts of things.

So, we're thinking about for contingencies, not to worry about, I suppose, tonight, but this is as close as we'll get.

NYE: Well, you know, we say, Bill, Abby, everything happens for a reason. And that reason, anyone, is usually physics. So, we do understand this well enough. We can prepare for this.

My personal hero, Michael Faraday, coined the noun electromagnetism. He understood that it's the moving magnetic field that creates electricity. Electricity creates a magnetic field, this wonderful interaction. So, we can prepare for this.

And you guys, thank you, have been celebrating the beauty of it. These particles will come into the atmosphere and zap up electrons on molecules. And as they fall down, they'll release light photons and it will be lovely.

And those of you who have kept your Eclipse glasses, and I hope you have, look at the sun tomorrow. You can see here where I am in about 34 degrees latitude in California, you can see the sunspot right about what you might call 3:30 on the disk of the sun, you know, the position about the 3:00 or 4:00 position of the sun, and it's exciting.

And so, everybody, let's celebrate this. Humankind understands it all. How cool.

WEIR: Bill Nye, thank you so much for always infecting us with some wonder. We appreciate it. Happy solar storm watching.

NYE: Thank you.

PHILLIP: Thanks, Bill.

NYE: Happy solar storm.

PHILLIP: And we've got more coverage of this extreme solar storm event after this break, including reports of an aurora as far south as the state of Georgia.

Stay with us and we'll have more.

WEIR: Southern lights.



PHILLIP: We have more now on our special coverage of this extreme solar storm over North America. We are starting to get pictures as far south as Georgia.

Joining us now to help explain what is happening tonight and all across the planet is Brian Greene. He's a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University. He's also the director of Columbia's Center for Theoretical Physics. Brian, we were talking a little bit earlier, and Bill Nye earlier, as we were just talking to him, alluded to this. But there's a reason that we're not all freaking out about what this might do to all of us. How can we be so sure that a really massive one of these things isn't going to start to affect us poor humans on the planet Earth?


BRIAN GREENE, PROF. OF PHYSICS AND MATHEMATICS, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: Look, you can never be sure when it comes to anything in science. There's always a possibility of some weird anomalous, you know, huge solar flare that, you know, is the kind of thing you see in a disaster movie that will wipe things out.

But our understanding of the physics of the sun, our understanding of the processes, gives us confidence that that's not going to happen. We're well aware that the Earth is protected by this magnetic field, so when charged particles from the sun come toward us, this field tends to direct them to the North Pole and to the South Pole. And so, is it possible that some crazy thing could happen? Yes, but incredibly unlikely.

BILL WEIR, CNN CHIEF CLIMATE CORRESPONDENT: Let's talk about what's happening on the sun. We love it, worship it in many ways, keeps us alive, and forget that it's this thermonuclear bomb that's been going off for four billion years.

GREENE: A sustained bomb.

WEIR: A sustained bomb. And the force of this, I was reading, if we could catch just the force of one solar flare, it could power humanity for 20,000 years or something like that. But in '89, I was reading one of these coronal mass ejections, is what I want you to describe. Shut off the power in Canada, like a quarter of Canada. What is that like? What's the difference between that and the solar flare?

GREENE: Yeah, so the coronal mass ejection, you know, the analogy that you used before from baseball is actually pretty good. It's like, you know, you've got Juan Soto or Aaron Judge up there in the form of these bundles of magnetic field lines that get twisted up through the tumultuous activity that takes place on the surface of the sun, yielding these dark spots. That's what sunspots are, where the magnetic field is so strong that it actually suppresses the convection that ordinarily heats the arena, and that's why it's darker, it's cooler.

But these magnetic field lines, they act kind of like a slingshot. And so this slingshot, when it is released, can pummel these particles and fire them out into space.

And that's how these particles are propelled with substantial energy toward planet Earth. And when these charged particles hit planet Earth, well, things happen, right? Bad things can happen, as we've heard, in terms of potentially having an impact on communications or the electrical grid. But the beautiful side of it, when these charged particles hit the atmosphere, as some of them will do, they can excite the nitrogen and the oxygen in the atmosphere.

And when those atoms fall back to their less excited state, they give off light in the form of the aurora borealis, the borealis that we've been seeing. And so that's what's happening. So you've got the beauty side, you've got the danger side, but it all comes to the fundamental physics of these magnetic fields on the sun.

PHILLIP: Yeah, and at the moment, I mean, it is a little bit more on the beauty side than the danger side because we haven't seen a whole lot of reports of anything super negative happening in this particular one. But what are we observing about the activity of the sun in general over time? Is it becoming more active? Is it just very unpredictable? We don't know whatever we're going to get?

GREENE: Look, the sun is a very complicated physical system. It's this big ball of gas, which, as Bill says, has these nuclear processes, nuclear fusion happening deep in the core, powering the sun, giving rise to energy that ripples through layer by layer of the sun, ultimately getting to the surface.

The surface has temperatures ranging from tens of thousands of degrees to millions of degrees near the corona. So it's a very active environment, but you've got to bear in mind, it's been around for five billion years.

So in some sense, it's relatively stable on the timescales that matter to us.

And we're well aware that there are these 11-year cycles that the sun's activity goes through. And we're heading toward a maximum of one of those periods right now. And that's what we're seeing the effects of. So it's not unexpected. It's not anomalous. But it's hard to predict with precision exactly how powerful it will be in any given moment.

PHILLIP: It's crazy to think, Bill, that this is a blip in the universe and in the timescale of the universe.

GREENE: We're blips, yeah.

PHILLIP: We are blips in the universe. If that's not comforting for you, I don't know what is.

WEIR: It's like total eclipse. It gives us a sense of humble perspective. We're on this little blue and green marble hurtling through space at the mercy of physics.

GREENE: This is what it all is. We are nothing but collections of particles governed by the laws of physics, the same laws that govern the sun, govern the earth, and govern the things that make up our bodies. So we are nothing but playing out the equations that come down to us from Faraday and from Maxwell and from Einstein, because that's all that's happening right now anywhere in the universe, including here.

WEIR: Well, you are among my favorite collection of particles.

GREENE: Hey, well, thank you.

PHILLIP: And very stylish, too. A collection of particles well put together.

WEIR: Thank you so much.

GREENE: My pleasure. WEIR: All right. We come back. We're going to speak with a retired

astronaut about what NASA is doing in space at this moment as the storm hits. Stay with us.




WEIR: Welcome back to our special coverage of this extreme solar storm, a G5, the highest on the scale. Abby, I was just reading a couple of years ago, SpaceX, Elon Musk's company, launched about 49 new satellites during a G2 storm, 38 of them failed as a result of that change in the energy out there.

PHILLIP: And this is so much more powerful than that.

WEIR: So much more powerful. So not just the infrastructure orbiting Earth at risk, potentially might even be power grids on Earth. Let's bring in CNN technology reporter Brian Fung. What is the likelihood of communication breakdown or anything right now, Brian? Like our cell phones, for example, would this be affected?


BRIAN FUNG, CNN TECHNOLOGY REPORTER: Yeah. Bill and Abby, that's a great question. The good news is if you're an average cell phone user, this solar activity may not affect your devices very much. And the exact reasons for that are really interesting. And it gives you a really fascinating glimpse into how our everyday technology really works, not to mention the science behind this storm.

So as you've been hearing all evening, the sun's been sending these charged particles toward Earth that interact with our magnetic sphere, and that's what's causing these auroras everywhere. And a byproduct of all of that can be fluctuations in the upper atmosphere that scatter or even block radio transmissions in certain specific frequencies.

Now, this shouldn't interfere with cellular signals because those run on different frequencies than the ones we're talking about here. So your calls and your mobile data should still go through. But what can these storms affect? Well, the list includes satellites in orbit that aren't shielded by that magnetic sphere, as well as any signal trying to punch through that ionosphere, that upper layer of the atmosphere we were just talking about. So that could mean glitchy or less accurate GPS readings on ships or airplanes. But again, cell phone GPS might be less affected because phones usually rely on cell towers in addition to satellites to get a location fix.

Now, shortwave radio signals, those likely will have issues. That's because in order to increase their range, people typically try to bounce them off the underside of the ionosphere. These storms that obviously gets a lot harder, lots of commercial businesses and government agencies use this type of communication, and so do amateur ham radio operators. All of these users could be affected. There is one way in which the storm could indirectly affect your electronic devices, and that's if the disruptions cause widespread power grid issues. And utility companies say they're monitoring the situation and are prepared. But storm watchers, again, as you said, have upgraded this to the most intense level that exists in the U.S. government's classification system.

So if transformers get overloaded and the grid is disrupted, that could cut power to cell towers. And of course, you know, wireless companies do have backup generators on hand in case that becomes a problem. Bill and Abby.

PHILLIP: All right. Sounds like we're getting a little better at preparing for these things. Brian Fung, thank you very much.

Now take a look at this. You're looking at this video here. This is out of Michigan tonight. You can see a little bit of a purple haze in some parts, green haze in other parts. That is the aurora reaching down well into the United States, where perhaps normally we wouldn't be seeing anything like this on a Friday night.

Joining us now to talk about all of this is astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi, according to his bio on Twitter. He is science's -- science's greatest hype man. We've talked before, so I believe it. What's got you hyped up about this solar storm?

HAKEEM OLUSEYI, ASTROPHYSICIST: Well, thank you for having me tonight. And the first thing I'm hyped up about is I'm following Bill Nye and Brian Greene. That makes me the headliner.

WEIR: That's true. They're your openers, Hakeem.

OLUSEYI: For me, it's just like the April 8th total solar eclipse. It really brings the fact that we live on a planet that's orbiting a star that's in a galaxy to our front door. It brings it down to Earth. When you think about astronomical phenomena that are naked eye, aurorae are right up there. They're right behind. If you ask me, I'd say a total solar eclipse is clearly number one. But next to a bright comet, aurorae are pretty amazing to see. And if you're near the northern extremes or the southern extremes, we cannot just get the colors in the sky, but the actual undulating curtains of nebulosity. That's pretty awesome. And so the fact that that's going to extend to more people around the world, that's pretty cool.

PHILLIP: Curtains of nebulosity.

WIER; Nebulosity.

PHILLIP: That's a good one.

WEIR: A good album title. Your enthusiasm, your wonder for this is infectious, but we're news folk and we have to be the Debbie Downer every now and then and think about the cost of this, the potential risk of this sort of thing. From the GPS that have these atomic clocks that are synchronized down to the billionth to the second that our financial and national security information depends on those, to the grids. How worried are you on a scale of one to 10 about this doing damage to our way of life within our lifetimes or within the next few years?

OLUSEYI: Well, it really does depend, and so I have not been very nervous about it because we talk about the fact that the sun has an 11 year cycle between maxima and minima, but all maxima are not the same.

And in recent decades, the maxima have been decreasing in intensity. And so it was predicted previously that we might not even have a maximum this time around, but it turns out that we do.


So things could get much more energetical on the surface of the sun than what we're dealing with right now.

And the other thing is, is that it's not just what the sun's magnetic field and the Earth's magnetic field is doing. It's also how we design our technology to mediate the effects of geomagnetic storms. So just like the astronauts can go into a safe room if there's a high radiation event, satellites can be put into safety mode.

And I'm hoping that our ground-based surface electrical infrastructure also have safe modes so that we don't have events like we had in the early 20th century or late 19th century where things caught on fire because of big currents surging through our electric infrastructure.

PHILLIP: Yeah, we're looking, as you're talking there, Hakeem, at some pictures out of Decatur, Alabama. I mean, that's actually much further south, I think, than we were really expecting for this one. It just goes to show that the expectation we started this night at a G4, now we're at a G5. The intensity is getting more extreme. But the pictures for the rest of the country are really spectacular for people who might otherwise never see this. I've been asking people this in terms of the risk of it getting much worse, much more intense in the future. And I mean, what do you think about that? I mean, what do you think is going to be the likelihood that we might see a really, really big one, like one of those once in a lifetime kind of storms?

OLUSEYI: Yeah, so two things. First thing is seeing these things very far away.

If you look at photographs of aurorae from space, they're going from the top of the atmosphere up, flare at very high altitudes. So just like everywhere on the night side of the Earth can see the moon because it's at a super high altitude, in a manner of speaking, you don't have to be right under the aurora to see them. You can see them like 600 miles away because, you know, you're looking at something that's very far away.

Now, as far as the big one goes, we do predict what's happening on the surface of the sun. We have a science called helioseismology, just like we have seismology here on Earth.

And helioseismology has the ability to not just see what's going on subsurface on the sun, but what's coming around on the other side. So there is a signature in these so-called active regions where sunspots are, where you see this sigmoidal thing is shaped like an S, and that lets us know that that thing is about to blow.

Now, here's the other thing we know about the sun. Geological data shows us that in the past, the sun was way more active than it is today. It has cycles where it goes very quiet, like what was called the Maunder Minimum a few hundred years ago and was associated with the Little Ice Age and the potato famine in Ireland.

And you have events that show that the solar activity was much, much greater. So there's no evidence that we're going to see those big maxima this cycle. But, you know, it is even though it's predictable on short terms, we still don't quite understand what creates the magnetic fields in the sun, the so-called solar magnetosphere. And we don't understand all of the ways that energy gets injected via magnetic reconnection and waves on magnetic fields.

So there's a lot more to learn. Right. That's why NASA has so many satellites looking at the sun. Space weather is important.

WEIR: There are some scientists who think that there's a 12 percent chance of a G5 plus solar storm hitting Earth within the next 10 years. Hakeem, not among those, obviously the 12 percent.

PHILLIP: I'm going to go with Hakeem on this one.

OLUSEYI: You know, if you look at the error bar on that prediction, it's going to be pretty big.

WEIR: Pretty big.

OLUSEYI: Yeah. It's to the point of speculation.

WEIR: Yeah.

OLUSEYI: So, you know, what you could say is something like every century or so, we get something that size. So maybe we're now overdue. Right.

WEIR: Well, Hakeem, we appreciate your time and enthusiasm tonight. Thank you so much. Enjoy the light show tonight. We'll check back with you in the coming days. And Lawrence, your pictures are really starting to come in now and we'll show them on the air from all quarters. Stay with us on an exciting night.




WEIR: I'm here with Abby Phillips, her show, by the way, as we cover this.

PHILLIP: You're a good visitor to have. WEIR: Thank you for having a massive solar storm. More on that in a

second. But let's talk about Champions for Change. This is a franchise we do every year here at CNN where we celebrate sort of positive stories of ordinary folks stepping up. And I'm back. I get to tell a champion story this year. And I chose a woman, an NFL mom named Annette Rubin, who married a Seattle Seahawk and then retired in the Florida Gulf Coast just in time for her first hurricane.

And it shook her up so much. She imported a new way to build hurricane-proof construction, a technology from Italy she's bringing to the Gulf Coast to try to spare other mothers from the fright of a category five storm coming their way. It's a fascinating, disruptive idea in construction. Can't wait to share the whole thing with you. And here's a sample of some of our other champions this year.


UNKNOWN: A lot of the people that we worked with are deemed nonviable citizens, which just blows my mind.

UNKNOWN: There's this quote that said that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is human connection.


UNKNOWN: I decided I would create a business to empower people with autism and related disabilities through gainful employment in the car wash industry.

UNKNOWN: I launched a brand with the intention to really just diversify the wine industry.

UNKNOWN: Instead of looking at things glass half empty, look at things glass half full. What difference can you make in your community?

UNKNOWN: For every blanket that we sell, we'll donate a blanket to your local homeless shelter.

UNKNOWN: I've dedicated my life to searching for new medicines from nature to combat the worst drug resistant infections.

UNKNOWN: We believe robotics will unlock many technologies for all humanity to live longer.

UNKNOWN: We've mapped more of the surface of Mars than we have our oceans. So we have this ambitious goal over the next six years to map a million reefs.

UNKNOWN: You know, there's so many things that we can be creative as Native people by simply reimagining stuff that we already have.

UNKNOWN: But that's mind blowing to know that if I can plant a seed in somebody unknowingly, but just doing my job, it will influence them to be a more productive citizen.

UNKNOWN: If we all come together and do a small part, we're going to make a huge impact.


WIER: We like to restore a little faith in humanity.

PHILLIP: Yeah, I love this. Honestly, I love this time of year. It's important to tell these kinds of stories, really, Bill.

WEIR: Absolutely.

PHILLIP: All right. Well, we've got much more ahead in the next hour of our special coverage. Next Saturday night, this Champions for Change will be airing. But for now, we are continuing our coverage of this major solar storm that continues right now.