Solar storm may spark auroras Friday

The main sunspot in the 1236 group sports a short "tail" in this photo taken yesterday on the summer solstice. Credit: John Chumack

I hope you’re enjoying the start of summer. Today’s rain and wind make it feel more like April in my town, but the sun has done all it can to provide us with its steepest, most direct rays. Now we need the clouds to part to allow the solstice to work its magic.

Sunspot group 1236 cut loose a modest solar flare yesterday that helped launch a cloud of zippy electrons and protons straight toward the Earth called a ‘halo’ coronal mass ejection (CME).

A single frame from the video of yesterday's coronal mass ejection from the sun. Click to see the movie. Credit: NASA/ESA

‘Halo’ describes the symmetrical appearance of the cloud of particles, which expands away from the sun in a circle, indicating its headed in our direction. Many CMEs occur off to one side of the sun or the other and only deliver glancing blows (or none at all) to Earth’s magnetic field.

It was originally thought that the particles in the cloud were traveling at 500 mile per second and would reach Earth on the 23rd. Scientists at the Space Weather Laboratory have since downgraded their speed to “only” 400 miles per second. In addition to the effects of the CME, a favorably positioned coronal hole will help to further increase the likelihood of auroras.

In this series of maps prepared by the scientists at the Space Weather Lab, you can watch the cloud of ejected subatomic particles leave the sun (far left) and travel in the direction of Earth. Arrival is expected on June 24. Click image to see it as a movie. Credit: NASA

That places Earth in the fray in the early morning hours of Friday morning June 24. What’s this all leading up to? I wish I could say with certainty that we’re expecting a nice aurora from the collision, but the modest size of the flare and slower than expected speed of the cloud will likely lead to a minor display of northern lights across the northern U.S. and southern Canada with the better show further north.

Higher latitude observers have to contend with all-night twilights however, so auroral displays there will be compromised until late summer. The real winners will be all those scientists working in Antarctica where it’s now winter and night lasts 24 hours a day. If you live in the mid to high latitude zone, it’sworth keeping a lookout Friday and Saturday.

In September 1859, the sun unleashed one of the largest solar flares ever recorded, with northern lights visible as far south as Cuba. Back then, the most advanced technology was the telegraph. Compare that to today when we’re as dependent on the flow of electricity as we are of our need to eat. Telegraph systems went bananas after the flare, shooting sparks through operators hands and setting nearby papers on fire. When the telegraphers disconnected the batteries that powered the lines, aurora-induced currents in the wires still allowed them to transmit messages.

Although 93 milllion miles away, the sun's stormy moods can affect powerlines, satellites and communications on Earth. Credit: Martin Stojanovski

That’s why this week in Washington D.C., more than a hundred officials from power companies, NASA, FEMA and other agencies are attending the annual Space Weather Enterprise Forum to raise awareness of space weather and its effects on society especially among policy makers and emergency responders. They’ll be accessing the potential for blackouts caused from flare-related electrical currents on long distance power lines, GPS troubles and satellite breakdowns as the current sunspot cycle heads toward its 2013 maximum.

As if tornadoes and hurricanes weren’t bad enough, more and more we’ll have to pay attention to what’s going on with the nearest star to ensure the world as we know it keeps on ticking. Ah, for those days of 18th century innocence, when Ben Franklin first flew his kite in a thunderstorm. To learn more about the conference and the effects of stormy space weather, click HERE.

2 thoughts on “Solar storm may spark auroras Friday

    • The storm might spark (lead to) a display of northern lights. This flare was not a severe one, so there’s little to no chance for any serious effects like satellite damage or power grid problems.

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