Maybe you were expecting something more like this last night? Join the club. Credit: Bob King
Did you plan a vigil the past two nights in hope of seeing the northern lights? I know I did. Lost some sleep over it for sure. As it happened, the display never materialized. Yes, the expected brush with particle blast released by the Jan. 7 solar flare did blow by Earth, but only managed to stir up a nice show in Arctic regions like northern Norway and Finland during afternoon hours for U.S. time zones.
Since auroras in that part of the world are as common as doughnuts, I think we can say this outburst was officially a flop.
I spoke with Joe Kunches, space scientist at the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, this morning about the matter. When I first rang, he told me he’d have to call back because the staff was just going into a meeting about this very topic. Hopefully no heads rolled.
Kunches described the solar blast as an empty bottle. “There was nothing in it,” he said. Despite the fact that it made a direct beeline for the planet, there was no way for scientists to know the strength and direction of the magnetic field embedded in the particle cloud.”
The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) monitors the sun from the stable L1 Lagrange Point a million miles sunward of the Earth. The green swirls around the Earth represent its magnetic bubble called the magnetosphere. Credit: NASA/ESA/Steele Hill
“The CME (coronal mass ejection) was slower than the model suggested by 8 hours, which sometimes means that it will be weaker than expected,” said Kunches.
“This illustrates our biggest forecasting challenge,” he went on. “We can see the path but can’t know it contains a strong magnetic field pointing in the right direction by the time it arrives at Earth the way a forecaster knows the barometric pressure of a hurricane.”
What happens to the swirling, whirling cloud of subatomic particles released during a flare must rank a close second to chaos itself. Scientists make detailed observation with dedicated space observatories like SOHO, the Solar Dynamics Observatory and STEREO probes and then model the behavior of the incoming particle winds as best they can:
“Even if they’re right when it leaves the sun, there’s no guarantee it will be that way when it arrives,” said Kunches. CMEs can rotate and deform in unpredictable ways. The key to a solid prediction of auroras very much depends on the direction of the magnetic field within the cloud when it sweeps by Earth, a factor called Bz.
The interplanetary magnetic field, created by a wind of solar plasma entwined with magnetic fields, departs the sun in the shape of a gigantic spiral. As waves of varying strength, density and direction pass by Earth, our planet’s magnetic field occasionally hooks up with the sun’s, making auroras likely. Credit: NASA
Embedded within the sun’s plasma swirls are portions of its magnetic field. As that material – called the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF) – sweeps past Earth, it normally glides by, deflected by our protective magnetic field, and we’re no worse for the wear. But when the solar magnetic field points south – called a southward Bz – it can cancel Earth’s northward-pointing field at the point of contact, opening a portal. Once linked, the IMF dumps its baggage of high-speed particles into our atmosphere to light up the sky with northern lights.
The Jan. 7 solar gust arrived at Earth with a northward pointing Bz. With no coupling, nothing happened. Perhaps you’ve watched the real-time red trace on the ACE satellite’s Bz read-out. For most of the past two days that squiggly line has been “flat as a pancake” as Kunches put it, which did not bode well for auroras. At any time it could have dipped south but never did.
Click to watch a video of the solar wind linking up with Earth’s magnetic field behind the planet, sparking a particle cascade and auroras in our upper atmosphere.
While no method is absolutely guaranteed, I recommend the following sites to check before you get in your car and drive 100 miles to see an aurora:
* ACE Dynamic Plots – The red trace for Bz is the one you’re interested in. If the line dips well below the centerline to -10 or lower, auroras may be likely.
* Ovation Aurora – Simulation of the auroral oval (extent of aurora) based on live satellite data. Pay attention to the location of the red curve showing the southern extent of auroral visibility.
* Kp index – magnetic activity indicator updated every 3 hours. A yellow bar (Kp=4) is a good sign aurora might be visible from the northern U.S. and southern Canada. A red bar (Kp=5 or higher) indicates a larger storm and more extensive aurora.
By the way, Kunches says that the CME has blown by and doesn’t expect any northern lights for tonight, so catch up on your sleep. In the meantime, put on your philosophical cap and reflect about how much we really don’t know about the world. Always a great motivation to learn more.