Solar storm intensifies, making northern lights visible: what you need to know

Solar storm intensifies, making northern lights visible: what you need to know

A spectacular burst of sunlight triggered the highest geomagnetic storm in Earth’s atmosphere on Friday, which is expected to make the northern lights visible as far away as Florida and Southern California and could interfere with power grids, communications and communications systems. navigation.

Tonight’s storm is the strongest to reach Earth since Halloween 2003. It was strong enough to cause power outages in Sweden and damage transformers in South Africa.

The effects could continue through the weekend as a steady stream of solar emissions continue to bombard the planet’s magnetic field.

Solar activity is so powerful that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors space weather, issued an unusual storm watch Thursday for the first time in 19 years, which was later upgraded to a warning Friday . The agency began observing explosions on the Sun’s surface on Wednesday, with at least five heading toward Earth, the first of which reached the planet’s atmosphere on Friday.

“What we’re expecting over the next few days should be more significant than what we’ve seen so far,” Mike Bettwy, chief of operations at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, said at a conference press release Friday morning.

For people in many places, the most visible part of the storm will be the Northern Lights, also known as the Northern Lights. But authorities and businesses will also be paying attention to the event’s effects on infrastructure, such as global positioning systems, radio communications and even electrical power.

While the Northern Lights are most commonly seen at higher latitudes, closer to the North Pole, people in many other parts of the world are already enjoying a spectacle this weekend that could last into the start of the week next.

As Friday turned to Saturday in Europe, people across the continent described skies tinged with mottles of color.

Alfredo Carpinetiastrophysicist, journalist and author from north London, saw them with her husband from the roof of their building.

“It’s amazing to be able to see the auroras right from your own backyard,” he said. “I was hoping to maybe see a little green on the horizon, but the whole sky was green and purple.”

Here’s what you need to know about this weekend’s solar event.

A geomagnetic storm watch or warning indicates that space weather may affect critical infrastructure on or in orbit near Earth. This could introduce additional current into systems, which could damage pipelines, railway tracks and power lines.

According to Joe Llama, an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory, communications that rely on high-frequency radio waves, such as amateur radio and commercial aviation, are the most likely to suffer from it. This means that your cell phone or car stereo, which rely on low-frequency radio waves, is unlikely to fail.

However, it is possible that power outages may occur. As with any power outage, you can prepare by keeping your devices charged and having access to backup batteries, generators, and a radio.

The most notable solar storm recorded in history occurred in 1859. Known as the Carrington Event, it lasted nearly a week, creating auroras that extended as far as Hawaii and the Central America and impacted hundreds of thousands of kilometers of telegraph lines.

But it was 19th-century technology, used before scientists fully understood how solar activity disrupted Earth’s atmosphere and communications systems.

“It was an extreme level event,” said Shawn Dahl, a forecaster at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. “We don’t anticipate that.”

Unlike tornado watches and warnings, the target audience for NOAA announcements is not the public.

“For most people here on planet Earth, they won’t have to do anything,” said Rob Steenburgh, a space scientist at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

The goal of these announcements is to give agencies and companies that operate this infrastructure time to put protective measures in place to mitigate potential impacts.

“If everything works as it should, the network will be stable and they can go about their daily lives,” Steenburgh said.

It’s possible that the Northern Lights will grace the skies in places that don’t usually see them this weekend. Your best bet for seeing them is in a location outside of city lights.

But on Friday evening, weather problems could occur in some places. The northeast will likely be covered in clouds.

It’s possible the skies will cooperate in the Midwest, but the time would be closer to sunrise Saturday. A storm system will move through the area and if it passes through the area there will be clear skies behind the storms. Your ability to get a view will depend on your location and the exact timing of the storm system.

If the aurora reaches as far south as Alabama, which could happen this weekend, night skies will be relatively clear across northern Alabama and Georgia. Areas of the southern Plains and Rockies may have relatively poor viewing conditions.

Farther west, coastal states will remain relatively cloud-free, which could provide good viewing conditions. There may be clouds at high altitudes in the Washington mountains, but there is still a chance of clear skies.

If you are in an open area, even well south of where the aurora is predicted, take a photo or record a video with your cell phone. The camera sensor is more sensitive to the wavelengths produced by the Northern Lights and can produce an image that you cannot see with the naked eye.

Another opportunity might be to observe sunspots during the day, if your sky is clear. As always, do not look directly at the sun without protection. But if you still have your eclipse glasses from the April 8 event, you can try using them to try to spot the sunspot cluster causing the activity.

Giant explosions on the Sun’s surface, known as coronal mass ejections, send streams of energetic particles into space. But the sun is big and such explosions may not pass through our planet as it moves around the star. But when these particles create a disturbance in the Earth’s magnetic field, we speak of a geomagnetic storm.

NOAA rates these storms on a “G” scale of 1 to 5, with G1 being minor and G5 being extreme. The most extreme storms can cause widespread power outages and damage infrastructure on Earth. Satellites may also have difficulty orienting or sending or receiving information during these events.

The current storm is rated G5, or “extreme.” It is caused by a cluster of sunspots – dark, cold regions on the Sun’s surface – that are about 16 times the diameter of Earth. The cluster burns and ejects material every six to 12 hours, with the most recent activity occurring around 3 a.m. Eastern Time on Friday.

“We anticipate that we’re going to have one shock after another over the weekend,” said Brent Gordon, chief of the Space Weather Services Branch at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

The sun’s activity fluctuates on an 11-year cycle, and at present it is approaching a solar maximum. Three other severe geomagnetic storms have been observed so far during the current activity cycle, which began in December 2019, but none are expected to cause strong enough effects on Earth to warrant monitoring or a warning announcement .

The sunspot cluster generating the current storm is the largest observed during this solar cycle, NOAA officials said. They added that activity during this cycle has outperformed initial forecasts.

Further flares and expulsions from this cluster are expected, but due to the rotation of the sun, the cluster will be oriented in a position less likely to affect Earth. In the coming weeks, sunspots could reappear on the left side of the sun, but it is difficult for scientists to predict whether this will cause a new burst of activity.

“Usually these projects don’t have as much punch as they originally did,” Mr. Dahl said. “But time will tell.”

Jonathan O’Callaghan contributed reporting from London.

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Mattie B. Jiménez

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