Tips for Thought

The Calamity and Wonder of Solar Storms

First, let’s understand the northern lights.

The aurora borealis is a natural light display that is typically seen in high-latitude regions, around the Arctic and Antarctic. It’s caused by the interaction of charged particles from the sun with the Earth’s atmosphere. These particles are carried towards the poles by the Earth’s magnetic field and when they collide with gases in the atmosphere, they produce the stunning light show we know as the northern lights.

The reason behind the viewing in parts of the Midwest and Northeast United States is a phenomenon known as a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun. CMEs are large expulsions of plasma and magnetic field from the sun’s corona. When these particles reach Earth, they can spark geomagnetic storms, which in turn can expand the reach of the aurora borealis further south than usual.

What are the best conditions for viewing Northern lights?

For the best chances of witnessing this natural wonder, there are a few conditions to keep in mind:

  • Dark Skies: The aurora is best viewed away from city lights. Rural areas with minimal light pollution offer the best viewing experiences.
  • Clear Weather: Cloud cover can obstruct the view, so a clear sky is essential.
  • Timing: The aurora can be unpredictable, but they are often most visible between 9 PM and 1 AM.

Safety and Preparation

If you’re planning to venture out to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, it’s important to prepare adequately:

  • Dress warmly, as temperatures can drop significantly at night.
  • Bring a blanket or a comfortable chair, as you might be waiting a while.
  • If you’re planning to photograph the aurora, a tripod and a camera capable of long exposures will be necessary.

A Rare Opportunity

While the northern lights are a common sight in polar regions, their appearance is rare. With a bit of luck and the right conditions, people could experience a dazzling natural light show usually reserved for the far reaches of the globe. Remember to check local forecasts and the NOAA alerts for the latest information, and prepare for a night that could light up with the magical dance of the northern lights.

The potential visibility of the northern lights in parts of Iowa, Nebraska, and New York is closely connected to solar storms headed for Earth. Solar storms, particularly those involving coronal mass ejections (CMEs), play a crucial role in this phenomenon. A CME is a significant release of plasma and magnetic field from the solar corona, the outermost part of the sun’s atmosphere. These ejections send a stream of charged particles hurtling towards Earth at high speeds. When these particles reach Earth, they interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, causing disturbances known as geomagnetic storms.

The Earth’s magnetic field extends far into space and acts as a shield, protecting the planet from the solar wind, a stream of charged particles emanating from the sun. During a solar storm, the increased influx of solar particles can compress and distort the Earth’s magnetic field. This interaction causes the charged particles to spiral along the magnetic field lines towards the Earth’s polar regions. As these particles collide with molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere, they release energy in the form of light. This light is what we see as the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

Under normal conditions, the aurora is typically visible only at higher latitudes closer to the Arctic and Antarctic circles. However, a strong solar storm, like the one predicted by the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center, can intensify and expand the auroral zone. This expansion means that the aurora can be seen at lower latitudes than usual, making it visible in areas that don’t normally experience this phenomenon. The intensity of the solar storm determines how far south the northern lights can be seen. In particularly strong storms, the aurora can be visible across a larger part of the globe, giving people in regions like the Midwest and Northeast United States a rare opportunity to witness this spectacular natural event.

In summary, the visibility of the northern lights in regions typically not privy to such displays is directly tied to the occurrence of solar storms, particularly those involving significant coronal mass ejections. These storms enhance geomagnetic activity, expanding the reach of the aurora borealis and allowing it to be seen in areas much further south than it typically appears.

Should we worry about solar storms?

While solar storms and the resulting geomagnetic disturbances can create beautiful displays like the northern lights, they also have the potential to cause disruptions on Earth, although the level of impact varies greatly. High-energy solar storms can affect satellite operations, GPS navigation, radio communications, and even power grids. For instance, a particularly intense solar storm has the potential to damage satellites and disrupt their functionality, which can affect communication and weather forecasting systems. In extreme cases, these storms can induce electrical currents in power lines, potentially leading to transformer damage and power outages, as was the case in the 1989 Quebec blackout. However, it’s important to note that such severe events are rare. Most solar storms pass without significant disruption, and power and communication networks have been progressively fortified to withstand geomagnetic disturbances. Additionally, space weather forecasting has improved, allowing for better preparation and mitigation of potential impacts. While there is a need for awareness and preparedness, especially by entities managing critical infrastructure and space assets, for the general public, solar storms are typically not a cause for concern beyond their potential to create dazzling auroral displays.

Takeaway

Dealing with solar storms primarily involves preparedness and awareness, especially for those managing critical infrastructure and space assets. On an individual level, staying informed through reliable space weather forecasting services can help anticipate potential impacts. For those reliant on GPS and satellite-based communication, having backup plans, like traditional navigation tools or land-based communication systems, can mitigate disruptions. For electrical utilities, being aware of impending solar storms allows for adjusting voltage levels to protect the power grid from geomagnetic-induced currents. In satellite operations, precautions may include adjusting satellite orbits or temporarily shutting down non-essential systems to avoid damage. For the general public, the impact is often minimal, but it’s still beneficial to have a basic emergency preparedness kit, as one would for any natural calamity.