The Northern Lights could dazzle skies across the northern US this week


A brilliant display of auroras could grace the northern skies from Wednesday to Friday after the sun sent several waves of energy towards Earth earlier this week. Activity is expected to peak Thursday through Friday as a strong geomagnetic storm, rated G3, reaches Earth.

A strong G3 storm “brings the aurora borealis down to the United States,” said Bill Murtagh, program coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center. He said skywatchers could see the dancing light display from New England across the Great Lakes to northwest Oregon and Washington state.

That is, if clouds are not a problem.

On Wednesday, skywatchers in the Upper Midwest and New England may see too much cloud cover to get a good view of the aurora. On Thursday, when the geomagnetic storm is expected to be strongest, scattered cloud cover still looks likely in parts of the northern part of the country, although much of Montana, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island are all planned. have mostly clear skies.

Auroras are created when the sun sends a burst of energy and particles towards Earth through solar flares, coronal mass ejections, or solar wind currents. Some of the solar particles collide with Earth’s magnetosphere and travel along magnetic field lines into Earth’s upper atmosphere, where they can excite nitrogen and oxygen molecules and release photons of light, creating displays known as the aurora borealis.

In this case, multiple coronal mass ejections (CMEs), or large expulsions of plasma and magnetic material from the sun, have been created in a particularly active region of the sun over the past few days. Coronal mass ejections arrive just below a gargantuan coronal hole extending across the northern and southern hemispheres of the sun. A coronal hole spits out a fast-moving solar wind full of particles that, on their own, can cause some minor geomagnetic disturbances on Earth.

Much of the sun’s energy is destined for Earth and is expected to produce moderate to strong geomagnetic storms. NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center issued geomagnetic storm watches for Earth from Wednesday through Friday.

“There is a lot of excitement from solar physicists and space weather forecasters, but there is no concern. No reason to worry; there is no imminent danger ahead,” said Alex Young, associate director for science in the Heliophysical Sciences Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He added that late Tuesday evening, the first CME had only minor impacts on Earth.

Some solar flares have caused minor radio outages over the past few days. Larger solar storms can also disrupt GPS systems.

On Thursday, the increased activity will be attributed to a “cannibalistic CME” event, which occurs when a faster moving CME ingests a slower one. Coronal mass ejections can travel anywhere from 1 million to 6 million mph as they travel through space, meaning a faster CME can easily overtake a slower one before reaching Earth.

“When slower [CMEs] are launched first and the fastest ones catch up with them, they can have even more impact,” space weather physicist Tamitha Skov explained on a Live stream on YouTubeadding that the term is not his preferred way of explaining the phenomenon, however.

“Cannibalism is not really true, [CMEs] don’t really eat each other,” Skov said. “All they can do is ram into each other like bumper cars and slam into each other’s backs and magnify each other.”

More solar storms are expected as the sun continues to progress through its 11-year cycle of solar activity, which is intensifying towards its maximum, which Murtagh expects it to reach between 2024 and 2025.

“Since we started rising from solar minimum, we’ve had G3 type storms, but we haven’t had any more yet. We haven’t had a G4 or greater geomagnetic storm yet at this point in the cycle,” Murtaugh said. “But it’s inevitable. We will see this level of storm in the months and years to come. »

Geomagnetic storms are classified via NOAA’s G-scale, a tool that ranges from G1, a minor solar disturbance, to G5, an extreme storm capable of causing widespread blackouts, shutting down satellites for days, and rendering the Northern Lights visible as far south as Texas. and Florida.

Some parts of the Earth seem more exposed to solar weathering than others. A combination of local geology, proximity to the ocean, latitude and large interconnected power grids all play into calculating the areas most at risk of disruption from geomagnetic storms, according to Murtagh.

“One of the most vulnerable areas in the world is basically the US Northeast Corridor,” Murtagh said, adding that parts of Canada are also very vulnerable to solar storms.

The last G5 storm to hit Earth hit in 2003, with coronal mass ejections hitting around Halloween. The storm damaged satellite systems, knocked out power to parts of Sweden for an hour and sent the northern lights as far south as Florida, according to NASA.

Another disruptive solar storm hit in March 1989causing major outages to global communications networks and power cuts across much of Quebec for 12 hours.

“Just like people who live in areas where there are hurricanes or tornadoes, it’s always good to have flashlights, to have extra batteries, to have water on hand, because it is true that recent research has shown that geology is such to do [the Northeast] slightly more sensitive,” Young said.

Kasha Patel contributed to this report.