The sun has awakened in an explosive manner after a prolonged dormant period, and has unleashed a massive amount of plasma and electromagnetic energy toward our planet.
And while that may sound daunting – and likely teases the imagination with Hollywood-like scenarios of electromagnetic pulses raining down on our cities – the practical effect could be a disruption of some communication as well as a brilliant display of northern lights (aurora borealis) as far south as New York, Oregon, Illinois, Pennsylvania and maybe even parts of Australia.
On Monday, a massive solar flare erupted from the massive star, producing a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun’s atmosphere that will interact with the Earth’s own atmosphere through Thursday.
CNN described the event as “the equivalent of a massive solar belch” that comes after months of a hiatus and marks the start of a new period of heightened solar activity, which could result in some anomalies in our own skies.
The NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center issued a Geomagnetic Storm Watch until Dec. 11, which could see some gorgeous, dancing northern lights occur far south of where they normally happen – such as in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Portland, and Seattle.
The awakening of the sun marks the beginning of “Solar Cycle 25,” a period of 11 years in which solar storms and stormy activities on the sun’s service will be come more routine.
While the sun lies a distant 93 million miles away, such disturbances can have major effects across the solar system. Solar scientists and meteorologists who forecast space weather rely on sunspots – those cool, discolored regions that appear on the solar disk – to know whether solar flares will occur, and potentially disrupt or cut off radio communications on earth.
So one possible effect of the heightened solar activity could be increased static on the radio, a drag on low-Earth-orbit satellites, and even some major GPS positioning errors. NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, has even warned that there is a potential for strong storm levels “if the magnetic field carried with the CME connects well with Earth’s magnetosphere.”
However, the center was also careful to warn that the storm isn’t a catastrophic event by any means.
“This is NOT a major space weather event,” SpaceWeather.com wrote. “But after 3 years of uber-quiet Solar Minimum, it is noteworthy.”
Even the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) issued a geomagnetic warning for Wednesday and Thursday, explaining that the global geomagnetic activity could result in some isolated major storms – and auroras – in the skies above parts of the land down under.
“Auroras may be observed during local nighttime hours in Tasmania and on the coastline of Victoria,” said the BOM’s Space Weather Service (SWS). “There is a chance to observe aurora on the southwest coast of Western Australia.”
The solar particles and magnetic fields unleashed toward us by the sun force particles trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere o be released, triggering reactions that force photons of light activated by oxygen and nitrogen molecules into the upper atmosphere.
“After a trip toward Earth that can last two to three days, the solar particles and magnetic fields cause the release of particles already trapped near Earth, which in turn trigger reactions in the upper atmosphere in which oxygen and nitrogen molecules release photons of light,” notes NASA. “The result: the Northern and Southern lights.”
While the forecast peak of auroras was on Wednesday at 10 p.m., some activity remains possible through Dec. 10.
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