(NEXSTAR) – The sun has been active for the past few days, triggering solar radiation events, a powerful flare event, and now, several coronal mass ejections (CMEs), which can bring northern lights on the US side this week.
As far-fetched as the terms may sound, these are normal activities for the sun, especially in the phase it is currently in: Solar Cycle 25.
Solar cycles are 11-year periods when the sun flips its magnetic poles, which can ignite space weather such as flares and CMEs, which are explosions of plasma and magnetic material from the sun that reach on Earth for only 15 to 18 hours, NOAA explains. . NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) reported last month that we are approaching the peak of the current solar cycle.
As part of that, we can expect to see the activities monitored by the SWPC in the past few days. Last week, SWPC detected several solar flares, which could affect those using high-frequency radio signals although not affecting the majority of the public.
On Friday, the SWPC reported a minor solar radiation storm event, which the agency warned was “unusual” and brought only minor effects to those using high-frequency radios and “possible minor risk to space launch.” Later that day, the agency reported a polar cap absorption (PCA) activity was initiated which, again, only provided a possible impact to those using high-frequency communications in the polar regions.
On Sunday, the SWPC issued a geomagnetic storm watch that will last until Wednesday because of the chance that “more CMEs may come to Earth and bring more geomagnetic activity.”
According to NASA, CMEs create currents in the Earth’s magnetic field that send particles to the North and South Poles. When the particles combine with oxygen and nitrogen, they create the northern lights.
“This is actually the day that fires a magnet in space,” Bill Murtagh, program coordinator for SWPC and expert space weather forecaster, previously told Nexstar. “This magnet affects the Earth’s magnetic field and we get this massive interaction.”
Such an interaction is known as a geomagnetic storm. The strength of the storm affects how far south the northern lights can be seen.
To indicate the strength of geomagnetic storms, the SWPC uses a 5-point scale. At the lowest end is G1, which is described as small storms that can lead to auroras seen in Maine and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A G5 storm, described as severe, could send northern lights into the southern US
Through Wednesday, the SWPC said, CMEs are likely to cause G1 to G2 level geomagnetic storm conditions. This is unusual: a G2 moderate geomagnetic storm affected Earth last month after a burst of solar material was detected.
While there is no concern for most of the public when it comes to these storms, there is an opportunity for those in the northern part of the US to see the northern lights.
Based on the current forecast from SWPC, it looks like the best chance for the northern US to catch the aurora is Monday night. The map on the left below shows Monday’s forecast. Areas in red have the greatest probability of seeing the aurora, while those in green have the least probability. Those who live as far south as the red line on the map are likely to see the northern lights when they look at the northern horizon.
Alaska and most of Canada have the best chance of seeing the aurora on Monday and Tuesday, as they usually do thanks to their proximity to the North Pole. Fourteen states are at or above the line of sight, meaning they have at least a slight chance of seeing the aurora Monday. Those states include Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, northern Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Tuesday’s forecast, which can be seen on the map at right above, shows the possibility that the aurora will light up the night sky more slim, even in Alaska and Canada. Some northern states may, however, still see the northern lights. States at or above the line of sight include Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and northern Maine.
As you know, the further north you are, the more chance you have of seeing the aurora when it lights up.
If you live in the south, say in Texas or Florida, you need a very strong geomagnetic storm event to have a chance at the northern lights.
According to the SWPC scale, a minor G1 storm causes the aurora most commonly seen in Maine and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A moderate G2 storm could bring the northern lights a little south to New York and Idaho.
If a storm reaches G3 status, the aurora can be seen as far south as Illinois and Oregon. If it reaches G4 strength, those living in Alabama and northern California may have a chance to see the northern lights. Solar activity that causes a G5 storm, the highest possible on the SWPC scale, has been known to produce auroras in Florida and even southern Texas.
If you live in a southern state like Florida, Texas, or even Hawaii, in addition to a G4 or G5 hurricane, you’ll also need a few pieces to fully align, according to Murtagh. That includes the storm hitting Earth around 8 or 9 pm (so you can actually see the lights), a clear sky, and a landscape free of light pollution caused by cities and town
More severe geomagnetic storms are rarer, however. A G1 storm, for example, can occur 1,700 times per solar cycle (more on that later), or about 900 days every 11 years. A strong G5 storm can only occur about four times during the solar cycle.
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