Changing Planet

Solar Storm Heading for Earth May Spark Auroras This Weekend

An X1.6 class solar flare flashes in the middle of the sun on Sept. 10, 2014. This image was captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory and shows light in the 131 Angstrom wavelength, which is typically colorized in teal.  Credit:  NASA/SDO
An x1.6-class solar flare flashes in the middle of the sun on September 10, 2014. This image was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and shows light in the 131-angstrom wavelength, which is typically colorized in teal.
Credit: NASA/SDO

Two powerful solar storm clouds are heading straight for Earth, triggering an aurora alert across northern Europe, Asia, Canada, and the northern United States.

Two giant flares—the second of which was an X-class, the most powerful of solar blasts—erupted on the sun’s fiery surface on September 9 and 10, shooting two outbursts of charged particles known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs) into space. Space weather officials predict that these plasma clouds will produce strong geomagnetic storms and hit Earth on September 12 and 13.

The flares themselves were observed by NASA, which posted stunning photos and videos of the events on its website.

Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation that erupt from regions of the solar surface many times the size of our planet. They can cause disturbances in Earth’s atmosphere while disrupting GPS and radio signals. The disruptions can last as long as the flares do, anywhere from minutes to hours.

That is exactly what happened on Wednesday afternoon when the second, stronger, of the two flares occurred, producing a short blackout period in high-frequency communications that lasted for a few hours.

Howling Radiation

Since the radiation from the flares travels at the speed of light, 11.2 million miles (18 million kilometers) per minute, and the sun is about 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) distant, the radiation hits Earth within 8.5 minutes of the solar explosion occurring.

Ham radio operators who happened to be located on the sun-facing side of Earth at the time of the event on Wednesday actually detected the loud solar explosion, reporting a blast of radio noise on their shortwave receivers.

“It was absolutely howling,” Thomas Ashcraft, an amateur radio observatory owner in New Mexico, told spaceweather.com.

“By the time the flare peaked, it became almost too intense for my ears.”

Sky Glow

Now attention has turned to the two CMEs that have Earth in their crosshairs. NOAA space weather forecasters report that when CMEs slam into Earth’s magnetic field, the results may include induced electrical currents that could trigger residential and commercial alarm systems, intermittent satellite navigation (GPS) problems, high-frequency radio outages, and potentially, northern lights.

So, the big question is whether we will get to see any sky fireworks from this solar storm. That will depend on the strength of the storm and the orientation of Earth’s dynamic magnetic field when it hits. Sky-watchers, particularly those in northern-latitude regions, should be on the lookout for possible auroras visible in the northern skies. Forecasters say that these sky glows may extend as far south as Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Oregon. (See “Pictures: Auroras of February and March.”)

The best time to try and capture pictures of auroras, in general, is between midnight and the pre-dawn hours. Face the northern sky and look for green or red glows that start near the horizon. In terms of equipment and technique, all you need to have is a tripod-mounted DSLR camera with a wide-angle lens, capable of taking exposures of up to 20 seconds with a remote timer. (Related: “Did You Hear the Northern Lights?”)

It’s important to remember that we are still in the very early stages of being able to predict when auroral displays will happen, and their potential intensity.  But with some patience and luck we might be in for a decent cosmic light show this week.

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter and Facebook.

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.

  • Brad

    It was actually an M class solar flare followed by an X class flare. Not 2 X flares. Also the blast from the M class flare is only expected to give the earth a glancing blow the X flare on the other hand is heading straight for us. Either way be on the look out for Aurora’s Friday night.

  • Brad

    It was actually an M class solar flare followed by an X class flare. Not 2 X flares. Also the blast from the M class flare is only expected to give the earth a glancing blow the X flare on the other hand is heading straight for us. Either way be on the look out for Aurora’s Friday night.

  • Robert Brennan

    Brad, huh. Well Brad, there’s no need for the possessive apostrophe “s” or capitalization of “auroras” here. An “s” at the end with no apostrophe will indicate the plural.
    Good luck with your little blog, Mr. Fazekas. Feel free to ask me for any help with science stuff.

  • Robert Brennan

    Brad, huh. Well Brad, there’s no need for the possessive apostrophe “s” or capitalization of “auroras” here. An “s” at the end with no apostrophe will indicate the plural.
    Good luck with your little blog, Mr. Fazekas. Feel free to ask me for any help with science stuff.

  • Mark

    It is just a matter of time before ol’ sole wipes away our atmosphere….Hasn’t started convulsing yet….Of course we have been hit with solar sparks for eons…….who knows in a blink tomorrow may be the day……. This is truly fascinating!

  • Mark

    It is just a matter of time before ol’ sole wipes away our atmosphere….Hasn’t started convulsing yet….Of course we have been hit with solar sparks for eons…….who knows in a blink tomorrow may be the day……. This is truly fascinating!

  • Brad

    Anytime. If you or anyone else out there is interested in solar physics, flares, CME’s etc… check out http://www.solarham.com. its a great resource for data and the latest news about our star. Spaceweather.com is great too.

  • Brad

    Anytime. If you or anyone else out there is interested in solar physics, flares, CME’s etc… check out http://www.solarham.com. its a great resource for data and the latest news about our star. Spaceweather.com is great too.

  • Mark

    Having said all that I would like to suggest to you that it wasn’t a big rock that wiped everything out it was a massive flare…..and then we are born…….It is really amazing man is so closed minded….

  • Mark

    Having said all that I would like to suggest to you that it wasn’t a big rock that wiped everything out it was a massive flare…..and then we are born…….It is really amazing man is so closed minded….

  • LizR

    If it was a solar flare that wiped out the dinos, was it particularly rich in iridium?

  • LizR

    If it was a solar flare that wiped out the dinos, was it particularly rich in iridium?

  • Lee Bethell

    Rock,or Flare, thats what will cause earth,s demise, not when the sun turns into a red giant, or maybe warfare as well

  • Lee Bethell

    Rock,or Flare, thats what will cause earth,s demise, not when the sun turns into a red giant, or maybe warfare as well

  • maria

    Does anyone know the actual time of the solar flare(s)? I am pregnant and was in flight at 1437 for about 1.5 hours from Nashville, TN to Wash D.C. and then again at 2030 for about 45 minutes from Wash D.C to Pittsburgh, PA and was wondering about the exposure/risk.

  • maria

    Does anyone know the actual time of the solar flare(s)? I am pregnant and was in flight at 1437 for about 1.5 hours from Nashville, TN to Wash D.C. and then again at 2030 for about 45 minutes from Wash D.C to Pittsburgh, PA and was wondering about the exposure/risk.

  • Gary

    are we not past due for another Carrington event?

  • Dipanjan Mitra

    good to know !!! very nice indeed !!! i hope it happens and just doesn’t pass by the planet, like many any other such predictions.

  • Dipanjan Mitra

    good to know !!! very nice indeed !!! i hope it happens and just doesn’t pass by the planet, like many any other such predictions.

  • ivanna ramirez

    wow!

  • ivanna ramirez

    wow!

  • Taynáh Coelho

    I’d like to see these auroras, but in the planet area where I live it’s impossible.

  • Taynáh Coelho

    I’d like to see these auroras, but in the planet area where I live it’s impossible.

  • evelyn soto

    the sun tends to send solar flares often. just not very often do they send very huge flares. if ever we get to the point that the sun’s flares get really high like in the moving knowing then we are as good as dead

  • evelyn soto

    the sun tends to send solar flares often. just not very often do they send very huge flares. if ever we get to the point that the sun’s flares get really high like in the moving knowing then we are as good as dead

  • pm

    A news article mentioned the glow will be visible in Asia too…. Is that true? Which part of Asia though? Any info on that?

  • pm

    A news article mentioned the glow will be visible in Asia too…. Is that true? Which part of Asia though? Any info on that?

  • aradhaya

    this is wonderful and due to this solar flame we die

  • aradhaya

    this is wonderful and due to this solar flame we die

  • Bart

    I’m not worried about solar flares just global warming since we’ve had much colder winters and cooler summers the global warming concern might be fading among intelligent people, we’ve got to somehow keep it alive, maybe changing the term to “climate change” will be enough to keep it alive as an issue, but change is what climate does, so I don’t know if that will be enough to keep the issue live.

  • Bart

    I’m not worried about solar flares just global warming since we’ve had much colder winters and cooler summers the global warming concern might be fading among intelligent people, we’ve got to somehow keep it alive, maybe changing the term to “climate change” will be enough to keep it alive as an issue, but change is what climate does, so I don’t know if that will be enough to keep the issue live.

  • Chanda

    I am moving to a location with a clear view, a wide expansive view North over Lake Ontario. I hope to see many auroras from my new home!! What website has the best predictions of their occurrences?

  • Chanda

    I am moving to a location with a clear view, a wide expansive view North over Lake Ontario. I hope to see many auroras from my new home!! What website has the best predictions of their occurrences?

  • Alex castro lima Alex

    Quero saber tudo sobre solar

  • Alex castro lima Alex

    Quero saber tudo sobre solar

  • gail fawcett

    The northern lights were seen in eastern Sweden last night

  • gail fawcett

    The northern lights were seen in eastern Sweden last night

  • E.MANGALIMAN

    Good to know these facts, perhaps we will be able to watch it

  • E.MANGALIMAN

    Good to know these facts, perhaps we will be able to watch it

  • mcoy

    run for your life..enigma is coming.

  • mcoy

    run for your life..enigma is coming.

  • Kit Kat Kate

    Well,I can’t wait to see auroras!!

  • Kit Kat Kate

    Well,I can’t wait to see auroras!!

  • bonphace w babile

    the earth’s surface is experiencing different changes these years. the matter here is for everyone to take action to remedy the situation.

  • bonphace w babile

    the earth’s surface is experiencing different changes these years. the matter here is for everyone to take action to remedy the situation.

  • Sam Cuscou

    It was quite a site to see.My family was so amazed!Also,thanks for the info!!

  • Sam Cuscou

    It was quite a site to see.My family was so amazed!Also,thanks for the info!!

  • billy

    so amazing

  • billy

    so amazing

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