Small solar storm coming to Earth, aurora forecast strong in Alaska –

Small solar storm coming to Earth, aurora forecast strong in Alaska -
Solar storm heading to Earth may bring Northern Lights far south. Heres how to see the auroras.
Space weather forecaster Jonathan Lash says a solar flare that left the sun this week is due to arrive at Earth around 2 p.m. EDT Saturday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist says the flare is too weak and any light show would be limited to Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Norway and other far northern spots.

Weve seen powerful solar storms in the modern era. Most recently, an X-class solar flare killed a satellite and caused a 12-hour blackout in parts of the northern US and Ontario on Halloween in 2003. That was the strongest directly measured flare so far. Another in 1989 caused a long blackout in Quebec, messed with sensors on the space shuttle and caused a mini-panic that a nuclear attack might be underway. Still, the power of the 1859 event likely dwarfs these more recent storms.

Lash says the event is unusual but not rare. Thats because it is happening during the quiet four-year solar minimum. Its unlikely to cause power or communication problems on Earth, nor will many people get a chance to see shimmering auroras.

A Solar Storm Will Send the Northern Lights Surging South Tonight

A geomagnetic storm, caused by a cloud of charged particles ejected from the sun, may bring the aurora borealis as far south as Iowa, Colorado and Washington on Saturday, as these particles bombard Earth, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations Space Weather Prediction Center.

If the storm is oriented properly, we could have a chance for auroras for several days after impact, said Tamitha Skov, a space weather scientist based in Los Angeles.

Auroras form when charged particles from the sun collide with Earths atmosphere. When there is an influx of charged particles during geomagnetic storms, this can supercharge the auroras glow, according to Terry Onsager, a physicist at the Space Weather Prediction Center.

While most of the activity from the solar storm was reported on Sept. 1 and 2 in 1859, the sun was actually hyperactive from Aug. 28 to Sept. 4. It must have been one heck of a week. Remarkably, there are reports of aurora sightings even closer to the equator than what most accounts of the event say — as far south as Panama.

Its like a big battery driving electricity through the Earths system, he said. And when that flows through the atmosphere, the atmosphere glows like a neon light.

The particles are the result of a coronal mass ejection, an outpouring of plasma from the suns atmosphere that was detected by NOAA on Wednesday.

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. As NASA describes:

This is exciting news, considering we havent had a decently sized Earth-directed solar storm launch for quite some time, Skov said, adding that geomagnetic storms are less common during the current period of the suns 11-year activity cycle.

Onsager said the storm could arrive Saturday morning, which means it may not be visible. But he and Skov both said that prediction could change.

Space weather forecasting today is very much like terrestrial weather forecasting was back in the 1960s, Skov said. In other words, the forecast may be off by as much as 12 hours in either direction.

Onager and Skov recommend tracking the aurora in real time using tools like NOAAs OVATION Aurora Forecast Models, which predict the Northern Lights location anywhere from a few days to a half hour in advance.

Like the sun, auroras rise in the east and sets in the west, Skov said. So, if youre looking for it before midnight, she recommends looking east. After midnight, she says, your best bet is to look west.

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