A Solar Storm Will Send the Northern Lights Surging South Tonight
Geomagnetic storm to give the northern US and Canada rare chance to see aurora borealis. Stargazers in cities as far south as New York and Chicago may get a rare glimpse of the northern lights this weekend due to an unusual geomagnetic storm.
A giant cloud of charged particles from the solar corona — the layer of gas surrounding the sun, known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), is expected to hit Earth on Saturday, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The weather prediction center issued a geomagnetic storm watch on Wednesday after detecting a small solar flare, a high-energy burst fired by a sunspot, that was followed by a CME.
When the CME hits Earth, all those particles colliding with Earth’s magnetic field could turn up the range and the intensity of the Aurora, also known as the northern and southern lights.
The Aurora in both poles is caused by particles from the sun that are constantly flowing toward our planet, but a CME delivers an extra large helping that can really amp up the display.
As a result, the northern lights, which are usually only visible in places like Alaska, Norway or Iceland, will be able to be seen from lower latitudes, including New York, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Washington state. Skies will have to be clear to see the stunning spectacle. Experts recommend getting as far away from cities or urban areas as possible as pollution can hinder your view.
Scientists aren’t sure exactly what time the CME will reach Earth. For updates, visit the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.
The Sun is a relatively quiet G-type star (G2V), but the key word is “relatively.” While it avoids the massive storms known to affect so-called flare stars, it occasionally releases both solar flares and coronal mass ejections. On March 20, NASA detected such a flare with an associated CME. The coronal mass ejection will hit Earth on March 23 and may push the northern lights far south, lighting up skies in the northern United States and southern Canada.
Flares and CMEs are related but distinct events. Both occur near sunspot groups and are related to sudden shifts in the Sun’s magnetic field. A solar flare releases large amounts of radiation, in addition to some high-energy particles, but the energy released is dissipated in every direction rather than being aimed at a particular location. A coronal mass ejection, as the name implies, involves actual stellar material being shot into space. This disturbance can drive a shock wave in front of it, increasing the total impact on any planet that it hits.
We’ve talked about CME’s before, and the potential damage that they could pose to modern life on Earth. The good news is, the incoming CME headed for Earth today is a G2 storm. Roughly 600 of these occur every 11 years, though most of them don’t hit the Earth. A truly powerful storm, like the 1859 Carrington Event, would be classified as a G5.
The good news is if you’re in-between the green and yellow lines, you’ve got a solid shot of being able to see the event and its impact on the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights. NASA expects the aurora to be visible between the two lines early in the AM. If you’ve got a chance, try to sneak out and check out the light show if you’ve never seen it.
At these intensities, a CME is an interesting opportunity to see the way charged particles interact with the magnetic field. At higher intensities and in rarer events, the outcomes can be far more serious. We’ve explored those issues and the tremendous damage a Carrington Event could do to the modern-day electrical grid in multiple stories over the years. A former colleague of mine from some years ago has also recently written a guide on the potential dangers of EMP explosions from both solar and nuclear sources that discuss this issue extensively as well.
Once you start learning about them, CMEs are a hard class of natural disaster to completely dismiss. On the one hand, the odds of being struck by a G5 solar flare are low. On the other, we know for a fact that the Earth occasionally gets nailed by a nuclear fastball flung by a nearby stellar object we literally worshipped as a deity for thousands of years.
The impact on the world’s electrical grid, particularly the North American grid, could be substantial depending on where and when the flare hit. Much of our own electrical generating capacity could be offline for months to years depending on just how bad the disaster is.
The modern grid isn’t remotely designed to cope with the impact of a G5, the damage to power plants from smaller storms has been significant, and the utility companies generally refuse to acknowledge that they’ve overlooked a potentially massive source of damage that we know occurs every few hundred years based on previous records of CME events on Earth.