Solar Storm Could Light Up the Night Skies

A severe solar storm is brewing.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center on Friday issued a rare warning after a solar outburst reached Earth.

Officials said that the solar activity could potentially cause electrical outages or interfere with navigation and communication systems.

It also said that the northern lights, which are caused by material that the sun expels from its surface, could be visible as far south as Alabama or Northern California, and the northern parts of Britain.

The lights — also known as aurora borealis — usually look like an arc of green light.

According to the authorities, the solar flares will be most active starting on Friday and potentially over the next few days.

As nuclear reactions occur on the sun, it routinely expels material from its surface. This type of space weather is what creates auroras — also known as the northern and southern lights (depending on your hemisphere).

Here’s where the possible disruption could come in: When the sun’s activity increases, the emissions sent through the solar system can affect satellites orbiting close to Earth as well as infrastructure on the ground, leading to disruptions in navigation systems, radio communications and even the power grid.

The expelled material from the sun could reach Earth’s atmosphere by Friday afternoon or evening, officials said. The latest eruptions were first observed on Wednesday, with at least five heading in the direction of Earth.

“What we’re expecting over the next couple of days should be more significant than what we’ve seen, certainly so far,” Mike Bettwy, the operations chief at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, said at a news conference on Friday.

We are currently experiencing a level 4 (severe) solar storm.

There have been only three storms of that level since 2019, according to NOAA. Its announcement was even rarer: It had not issued such a warning since 2005.

It’s not the highest level solar storm, by the way. There’s also level 5, extreme.

The current storm is caused by a cluster of sunspots — dark, cool regions on the solar surface. The cluster is flaring and ejecting material every six to 12 hours.

“We anticipate that we’re going to get one shock after another through the weekend,” said Brent Gordon, chief of the space weather services branch at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

The warning isn’t really targeted for members of the public, so just go about your day as you normally would. (Except maybe look up at the nighttime sky a little longer.)

“For most people here on planet Earth, they won’t have to do anything,” said Rob Steenburgh, a space scientist at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. “If everything is working like it should, the grid will be stable and they’ll be able to go about their daily lives.”

If you’re in a place with a lot of bright lights — like a city — it’s going to be hard to see anything.

And then there are other complicating factors, like the weather. The Northeast is likely to be blanketed in clouds on Friday night.

In the Midwest, the skies could be clear after a storm system moves through.

With this intensity of solar storm activity, it’s possible the lights could be visible as far south as northern Alabama and Georgia, where night skies are expected to be relatively clear.

The southern Plains and Rockies, however, might have relatively poor viewing conditions. On the West Coast, conditions should remain relatively cloud-free, which could make for good viewing.

Some of the lights may also be visible outside of the United States.

In the northern parts of Britain, there’s a good chance the lights will be visible, according to the country’s Met Space Weather Operations Center.

“With plenty of clear skies in the forecast, there is a good chance of seeing the Aurora across the northern half of the UK,” the agency said on social media.

The nights are short this time of year — sunset in Scotland today is at 9:14 p.m. and sunrise is 5:12 a.m., — so the duration of any sighting may be limited, according to the Met Office.

And finally, a tip: If you are in a clear area, even south of where the aurora is forecast, snap a picture or record a video with your cellphone.

The sensor on the camera is more sensitive to the wavelengths produced by the aurora and may produce an image you can’t see with the naked eye.

Katrina Miller and Judson Jones contributed reporting.

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