What a colorful coincidence! On the morning of St. Patrick’s Day an unexpected and HUGE geomagnetic storm blew our way. And it’s still blowing. If it wasn’t for that new nova in Sagittarius, I would have slept through the whole thing. Maybe some of you rose before dawn to see the nova and turned around in surprise at what was going on behind your back.
Jim Schaff of Duluth happened to be up around 2:30 and wisely set up camera on tripod to capture the magnificent and colorful display. Even as the sky blued at the coming of dawn, the northern lights wouldn’t quit. I stood and watched two bands of green toss out rays like clowns throwing candy in a parade. Beautiful.
Oh and yes, there was the nova. Caught up in a green auroral haze, I nearly forgot to look, but when I did, the news was good. Reports from late yesterday indicated our new “guest star” had already faded a bit, but I saw it plainly in 10×50 binoculars at magnitude +5.6, a little brighter.
Then came another surprise – the crescent moon. The slender slipper rose above the rose ribbon of an impending sunrise. But the light was gaining. Sagittarius soon faded away as did the aurora.
Not so fast. Just because the sky turned blue didn’t mean the aurora wasn’t still in the house. Throughout the morning it continued and blossomed from a strong G3 geomagnetic storm into rather rare G4 or severe storm. G4 storms can cause electrical currents in oil pipelines, fading of shortwave radio frequencies, problems with satellite navigation and auroras as far south as Alabama. Too bad it’s daytime!
Tonight, NOAA space weather forecasters are calling for G1 level or minor storms (check update below). That usually means auroras only visible from the northern tier of states and points north. You never know. The Earth’s magnetic environment is highly disturbed after being hit with blasts of solar particles from recent explosions related to the supercharged sunspot group 2297 as well as a large coronal hole. The best time to look tonight will be from about 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. CDT. Watch for low bright arcs or occasional feather-like rays in the northern sky.
Another great tool to help you predict or know when the aurora’s out is the Aurora – 30 Minute Forecast put out by NOAA. It shows the extent of the permanent aurora that’s centered on Earth’s geomagnetic pole. When the Sun’s magnetic field links up with Earth’s magnetic bubble, particles get funneled into this beanie-cap affair, causing it to expand southward. During a big aurora, it expands far enough south that folks in the Midwest and southern states can see the northern lights.
May the luck of the Irish be with you tonight.
**UPDATE: The new forecast is much better. Strong to severe storms (G3-4) are now in the forecast for the remainder of the day and tonight. Start looking as soon as it gets dark.