Will we see Northern Lights tonight?

Solar eruption heading toward Earth

By Paul Gross - Meteorologist
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DETROIT - Scientists at the Space Weather Prediction Center have been monitoring for days a huge sunspot rotating around the sun.

The position of various sunspots are important, because these areas sometimes are the source of immense solar eruptions, called Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). The sunspot of interest is huge, as you can see in the photo below from Karzaman Ahmad at Langkawi National Observatory in Malaysia, as posted on SpaceWeather.com. 

To give you an idea of just how immense the sun (and these sunspots) are, Karzaman inserted a true-to-scale image of the earth in the corner of the image.  As you can see, the sunspot itself is several times larger than our planet!  Wow …

This sunspot, labeled AR1944, erupted with a huge X-class CME yesterday and, since it was perfectly located on the Earth-side of the sun, a massive stream of accelerating charged particles are heading our way.  Generally, these eruptions take about a day-and-a-half to reach Earth, so it should arrive late tonight and potentially continue through the day on Thursday.


So what are the impacts?  First, before talking about us on Earth, let's consider our astronauts and satellites in space.  Strong CMEs cause a radiation concern for astronauts, so NASA monitors these situations very carefully, and instructs astronauts aboard the International Space Station to move to safe areas when the CME arrives.  Another impact is that these fast moving streams of charged particles increase drag on low-orbit satellites, thus necessitating orientation corrections.

Here on Earth, the most obvious (and anticipated) impact is an increase in the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.  Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the Aurora is a continuous ring around the North Pole but, when a strong CME arrives at Earth, that ring is pushed farther south.  The stronger the CME, the farther south the Auroral Ring goes.  While scientists don't know the exact strength of our current CME until some of our satellites can directly analyze it, there is the potential that we may be able to see the lights late tonight.  IF you do see the lights tonight, please take some pictures and e-mail to me at paulg@wdiv.com!

On a scarier note, if the CME is very strong, it could cause voltage control problems in some power grids, temporarily impact GPS use, and possibly damage some satellites.  If the CME reaches the highest category of severity (called a G5 storm, which is very rare), then transformer damage can even occur.

I monitor our space weather on a daily basis (seriously…I do), and will keep you apprised if there are any important developments about this.  Don't forget that you can follow me on Twitter at @PaulGrossLocal4.  That's a quick way for me to get information out to you, if need be.

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