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June 17, 2024

Dazzling Northern Lights Display Possible as Solar Storm Hits Earth

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Jan 22, 2024

A geomagnetic storm triggered by a solar flare is expected to reach Earth on January 23rd, increasing the chance for spectacular northern lights displays across parts of the northern United States. The incoming storm could also cause minor disruptions to GPS and radio signals.

Solar Eruption Launching Storm Towards Earth

The storm was kickstarted on January 20th when a solar flare erupted from sunspot AR3190, classified as a strong M5.6 class flare. AR3190 is the largest sunspot observed on the Sun since 2017, stretching more than 10 times wider than Earth itself. The accompanying coronal mass ejection (CME) of magnetized solar plasma is what is now hurtling towards our planet at blistering speeds.

| Date | Event | Details |
|-|-|-|  
| January 20 | M5.6 solar flare from AR3190 sunspot region | Largest sunspot since 2017, 10x width of Earth |
| January 21 | CME launch towards Earth | Magnetized solar plasma, 1000 km/s velocity |
| January 23 (expected) | Geomagnetic storm impact | G2 (moderate) storm strength |

Experts forecast the CME and associated shock front will directly impact Earth’s magnetic field around midday UTC on January 23rd. NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has issued a G2 (moderate) geomagnetic storm watch for that day.

When the CME arrives, its collision with Earth’s magnetic field is expected to supercharge the aurora at higher latitudes. The influx of charged particles may also cause fluctuations in some GPS signals and low-frequency radio communications.

However, the CME is not powerful enough to pose major concerns. “Impacts should remain fairly minor, with perhaps some communication disruptions in polar regions,” said Dr. Tamitha Skov, space weather scientist.

Northern Light Outbursts Across Parts of U.S.

The amped up auroral activity means the shimmering northern lights may plunge unusually far south for brief viewing from northern-tier U.S. states.

states <- c("Michigan", "Minnesota", "New York", "Vermont", "North Dakota", 
            "Montana", "Washington", "Idaho", "Maine", "Wisconsin")
likelihood <- c(65, 63, 38, 36, 33, 33, 32, 
                31, 25, 15)
aurora_data <- data.frame(states, likelihood)

knitr::kable(aurora_data, 
             caption = "Forecast odds (%) of visible northern lights on January 23rd")

Areas like upstate New York, northern Michigan, and Montana have the highest probability of glimpsing the celestial light show. However, weather is always a factor, with cloud-free and very dark skies essential for even faint sightings.

For best aurora-viewing chances, experts recommend finding an observing spot with a good view to the north and as little light pollution as possible. Ideal times to be outside looking skyward are between 10 pm and 2 am local standard time.

What Triggers Auroras?

The northern and southern lights (aurora borealis and aurora australis) occur when solar wind particles penetrate Earth’s magnetic bubble and collide with elements like oxygen and nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. These excitations produce stunning curtains, streamers and dances of green, red, blue, and purple light above the planet’s poles.

knitr::include_graphics("https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/sites/default/files/images/u33/aurora_oval_1000.jpg")

Auroral displays appear in rings centered roughly around the north and south magnetic poles. But during intense solar activity and geomagnetic storms, increased charged particle flows shove the ovals of light towards lower latitudes for more widespread sightings.

Calmer Space Weather After January 23rd

While fantastic for skywatchers, most people barely notice solar tempests. Still, the Sun goes through 11-year cycles of calm and chaos with potential hazards during peak activity periods.

The current solar cycle began in December 2019 following a prolonged minimum. Cycle 25 is forecast to slowly build over the next few years with a最大 in 2025. That means space weather should remain relatively tranquil for awhile after this week’s storm.

But later in the 2020s, more extreme eruptions returning as the Sun nears solar maximum again could spell trouble. Scientists are ramping up research and preparedness efforts now for navigating any technological vulnerabilities.

Conclusion

This week’s geomagnetic storm may generate dazzling aurora sightings for lucky observers across northern tier U.S. states. The incoming solar blast also reminds us of the Sun’s impacts on Earth – which should only intensify as the solar cycle marches towards its next zenith over the next several years. For now, all eyes are to the skies for a beautiful celestial show.

AiBot

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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