Aurora Alert! – Good chance for northern lights tonight and tomorrow Jan. 8-9

A bright curtain of aurora drapes the northern sky two summers ago. Credit: Bob King

It’s not often you see “major” and “severe” geomagnetic storms in the space weather forecast, but here it is:

“Quiet to severe storm levels on day one (9 Jan.), unsettled to severe storm levels on day two (10 Jan.) …”

These dates are Greenwich time so Jan. 9 means sometime overnight tonight (Jan. 8-9) for U.S. and Canadian time zones. All this excitement is brought to you by the current huge sunspot group known as Active Region 1944, which contains one of the biggest sunspots seen in years.

Big sunspot group 1944 at 4:45 p.m. CST today. Credit: NASA

The entire works spans some 125,000 miles (200,000 km) or more than 15 times the size of the Earth. It’s spawned multiple M-class (moderate) flares and at least one X-class (strong) flare in the past couple days, sending high-speed streams of protons and electrons in Earth’s direction.

There’s an 80% chance of additional M-class and 50% chance of X-class flare from this very active group in the coming days. Sunspot groups are regions on the sun’s surface where magnetic energy is strongly concentrated like a giant bar magnet with north and south poles. In simple groups, the positive and negative magnetic poles are separated from one another and not likely to come in contact and cause trouble. Astronomers say these groups have a “beta” magnetic classification.

The X1-class flare that popped off earlier yesterday Jan. 7 in the big sunspot group cut loose a large, high-speed cloud of particles called a coronal mass ejection. Some of that material will start arriving in Earth’s vicinity late tonight. Click to see animation. This photo was taken with the SOHO coronagraph. Credit: NASA/ESA

Huge complicated groups like 1944 have a beta-gamma-delta magnetic field where spots of opposite polarities lie near one another with no clear division between them. This is where things get volatile. The more complicated a sunspot group’s magnetic field becomes, the greater the potential for magnetic mischief. Opposite polarities can interact in the churnin’, burnin’ solar soup and spawn strong flares.

When those speedy particles arrive and hook in to Earth’s magnetic field, which we dearly hope will happen, they spiral toward our magnetic poles, crashing into air molecules and exciting them to fluoresce as northern lights.

Let’s hope that transpires either tonight or tomorrow night. The moon – now just over half – won’t be enough to wash out the sky like a full moon would, and it sets just after 1 a.m., leaving a completely dark sky. Cross your fingers and get ready – the sky may go electric tonight. It’s clear here in Duluth, Minn., so I’ll be monitoring and updating.

UPDATE: 9:30 a.m. CST today: Expected northern lights didn’t happen overnight. Nothing seen from Duluth, Minn.. Chances are even better for auroras to break out tonight, so don’t give up the vigil. I’ll update later today.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , by astrobob. Bookmark the permalink.
Avatar of astrobob

About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

58 thoughts on “Aurora Alert! – Good chance for northern lights tonight and tomorrow Jan. 8-9

  1. That’s great Bob… Clear here in the Bay State–, Mass!. I’ll let you know if the Aurora Party get’s any good here too!. Phil A.!

  2. Getting interesting… However….. the Kp index is not showing anything of significance. Supposedly the peak was to be around 3 this afternoon. Kp index did not register anything other than a blip…..

    Why??

    Bill

    • Hi Bill,
      For whatever reason it is delayed. You know how nature is. However, I see that activity in the past hour or two has started to rise with the Kp back up to 3 and auroral activity up to “6″ on the POES auroral oval site. It appears whatever display we get might be delayed until around 3 tomorrow morning.

  3. Hey ! Very good article ! I never saw aurore borealis and Would not miss That !!

    I live in minneapolis and i was wondering if the light pollution is an issue. Also, What is the best Time frame tonight to see them ? Midnight ?

    Thank you very much and enjoy the sky in Duluth !

    • Hi Pierre,
      Thanks! Light pollution may be a problem for you if you’re in the city. Best to go at least some distance north of town to a darker sky. No light right now (10 p.m.). They’re more likely in the early hours tomorrow around 3 a.m. Good luck!

  4. Hi Astro Bob,
    I am a novice and am wondering if there is a way to be alerted if the Kp number gets high enough to see during the night? I’d love to see the lights.
    Thank you!

      • Hi Bob – One can sign up at spaceweather.com for aurora alerts. You can choose to receive a phone call or e-mail or both, what Kp index level will trigger an alert, and several other parameters. At our house when the phone rings at two in the morning, we know it is Tony calling (Dr. Tony Phillips used to read the alert). Now if we only could have clear skies. Rick

        Rick

  5. Hi Bob,

    Again, I fear my question is only going to show my ignorance, but so be it. That’s how I learn.

    In the SOHO coronagraph, Venus is to the upper left in the video. It is currently passing very nearly between the Earth and Sun, isn’t it? In fact, from our perspective on Earth, it seems (or will seem in a day or two) just below the Sun, right? So that should mean the Earth is further to the left and further up outside the frame of these pictures, shouldn’t it? If that is true, then it seems to me from this video that the majority of the material from the CME will miss Earth by a long way as it (most of it anyway) appears to go off to lower right (south east?) of the Sun. But those sun spots were pointed almost exactly at us. How does that work? I take it that the CME material does not come straight out of the sun spot like a bullet out of the barrel of a gun?

    Where are the SOHO spacecraft in relation to Earth (I am assuming there are more than one)? Are they way ahead and way behind Earth’s orbit like the STEREO spacecraft?

    Thanks again for your time with my questions. I try not to bother you too often, but sometimes I just have to ask!

    Live ready!
    Bob

    • Hi Bob,
      Great question. The view from SOHO (one spacecraft only unlike the STEREO duo) is almost identical to the view from Earth. The spacecraft is at the L1 Lagrange Point 1 million miles sunward of the Earth (directly between the Earth and sun). Even though Venus will be in conjunction in just a couple days, the 2014 inferior conjunction will occur with the planet fully 5 degrees north of the sun. The last inferior conjunction in June 2012 saw the planet pass directly between sun and Earth giving us a rare Venus transit.

      • And what about the direction and density of CME material; is there any to know from the spacecraft data how much material might be headed directly for Earth and how fast it would be coming? That was a big flare and large CME, and yet we seem to have had very little effect from it on Earth, at least that I know of. From an X-class flare out of a group of sun spots pointed right at us, I would have guessed that there might be power outages and other effects, rather like the big blackouts that occurred in Ontario, Quebec, and New York State from a solar flare some years ago.

        • Bob,
          Any CME’s effect on Earth has much to do with how its magnetic field is pointed when it begins buffeting the planet. If the local CME cloud’s field points north, auroras are unlikely. The material gets sloughed off our magnetosphere like water off a duck. If the field points south, it can link right into our magnetic field and follow those field lines until they spark auroras in the upper atmosphere. I wrote a piece that explains it better here: http://bit.ly/1lYm4Dt
          You have to have a really huge flare for power outages – an X1 is big but not big enough to threaten the grids. The Quebec blackout happened during an X15 flare – much more powerful.

          • ah-ha! I just saw “X-class flare” and thought, “Oh! They don’t get much bigger than that.” Thank you!

  6. Hello Bob,

    Did you have any luck? I live in Florida, and I saw a story on Earthsky that said they could maybe be seen here but probably not and it was cloudy.

    • Barbard,
      To the surprise of many, despite a 90% chance of aurora overnight, they never happened – at least not for U.S. observers. There is still a very good chance for them tonight.

  7. Hi Bob – For Thurs night, do you have any predictions on best timeframe for New England states. Skies look pretty clear in before midnight.

    And, do you have to face directly north to see them? We have almost no little light pollution on our back porch – but it faces East for a view of low horizon. We can look North but have a tree line blocking low horizon for our northern view.

    Are we ok to stay put?
    Thanks!

    • Jen,
      North is usually the best direction for auroras, though a big one can cover most of the sky. As always, the farther you can get from light pollution, the better. I can’t give you a time exactly. Just check your sky now and again. I’ll also update the blog this evening.

  8. Hi Bob,
    Recently moved to Park Rapids, Mn. (In the country) Do you suppose well be able to catch any views of the northern lights if they happen tonight? Thanks!!

  9. Aurora is coming – cue up the clouds! :-) 7 nights of extreme cold, but very clear skies, of course they couldn’t have come when the skies were clear! Sheesh….

  10. Check this site and refresh frequently: http://www.softservenews.com/Aurora.htm

    I saw nothing last night, ‘cept for a beautiful orange shooting star that went east to west starting overhead. :-)

    Interesting to note: While living in the Chicago suburbs, shortly after 9-11, I saw Northern Lights there with all the light pollution we had there, but it was strong! [And I freaked and thought it might be another terrorist attack of some sorts, at first!!! :-D Sad things like this come to mind in this day and age... . :-{]

  11. Hey Bob, I’m seeing a 45% cloud cover overnight for most of mn. Is that gonna drastically gonna reduce our chances of seeing the NL, or could a strong enough storm still be somewhat viewable?

    • Nick,
      If clouds are 50/50 that would be OK but would definitely compromise the view. Of course the 50% of clear just stayed put in the northern sky, that would be just fine by me :)

    • Anne,
      Yes, there is a good chance provided it’s clear and the forecast comes to pass. It looks like you’ve got a great quick getaway up Hwy. 400 to wild, dark places to the north.

  12. I live in Minneapolis and know I need to get out of town to see the NoLights. Do you know a webpage where I can get reasonably current cloud cover reports?

  13. I live in auburn, ma and have been sitting in my car with my husband since 715.. still waiting, but hopeful to see something!

  14. Being recently relocated to Glendive,MT ftom Louisiana… this news excites my kids and me… i really am mot sure that i understand the forecast, so can u please tell me if theres good chance we will be able to see the n lights tonight?

    • Cryst,
      Well, the first thing to remember is that it’s a forecast. Like weather forecasts, sometimes they’re wrong or the event comes earlier or later than expected. Right now, the sky is quiet – no auroras at 7:30 p.m. Mountain time. You can check yourself by occasionally going out and looking at the northern sky for any activity. There’s a good chance for auroras still tonight, and I will update the blog with news.

  15. Just wondering if we will be able to see anything from the Atlantic coast. We are on the lookout, but haven’t seen anything yet!

  16. Hello,
    I am in Minneapolis, how far north should I go to try to see the northern lights tonight?
    Do you think there is still a chance?

    • Aura,
      I wish I could say just when they might start. For all I know, they’ll fire up at 4 a.m. or maybe at midnight. Very hard to say. There is no activity as of 10:45 p.m. tonight – very surprising.

  17. Just back from hunting the skies north of Duluth. Saw the beautiful SE star formation brightly but no hints of the northern lights. Hmmmm next time

  18. Minneapolis & western suburbs are cloudy/ somewhat foggy now (3:41am) – minor light pollution in my location (Minnetonka) & no avticity as far as I can tell. I’ve never seen the NL but I’m going to start following these forums & spaceweather sites for in the future. (thanks, AstroBob! love the real time updates!) I’m burning the midnight oil & have my eyes on the sky!

  19. I’m in Sauk Rapids, Mn. It’s rather cloudy. What are my chances of seeing the lights tonight and any suggestions of best times to look?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>