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Solar Fury: Northern Lights Spectacle Expected This Weekend, Rare Severe Geomagnetic Storm Watch Issued Prompting Outage Concerns

A rare cosmic event is on the horizon, as a significant geomagnetic storm is forecasted to ignite the skies with the northern lights this weekend, visible as far south as Alabama and Northern California. This rare occurrence, spurred by solar activity, offers a unique opportunity to witness nature's dazzling display of auroras.

Aurora Display 2024 Photo: X

A severe solar storm is expected to enhance the northern lights spectacle on Friday, with projections suggesting that auroras might be visible as far south in the United States as Alabama.

On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center announced that a sequence of solar flares and eruptions from the sun could prompt severe geomagnetic storms and "spectacular displays of aurora" on Earth from Friday evening through the weekend.

“That’s really the gift from space weather — the aurora,” said Rob Steenburgh, a scientist with NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

Subsequently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a rare severe geomagnetic storm alert when a solar outburst reached Earth on Friday afternoon, arriving hours earlier than expected.

Rare Severe Geomagnetic Storm Watch Issued: First Since 2005

This marks the first time since 2005 that the agency has issued a severe geomagnetic storm watch.

“We have a rare event on our hands,” stated Shawn Dahl, a service coordinator at the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. "We're a little concerned. We haven't seen this in a long time."

Solar Fury: Earth's Magnetic Dance with the Sun

Since Wednesday, the sun has generated "moderate to strong" powerful solar flares, resulting in at least seven plasma outbursts. Each eruption, known as a coronal mass ejection, may carry billions of tons of plasma and magnetic field from the sun's outer atmosphere, or corona. The center reported that at least five flares and their associated coronal mass ejections seem to be heading toward Earth.

In a statement, the center warned, “Additional solar eruptions could cause geomagnetic storm conditions to persist through the weekend."

Solar Flare captured by NASAs Solar Dynamics Observatory on May 9, 2024.
Solar Flare captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory on May 9, 2024. Photo: AP

When these phenomena are directed at Earth, they can induce currents on high-voltage transmission lines and pose challenges for transformers on the power grid.

According to NOAA, these flares appear to be linked to a sunspot that is 16 times the diameter of Earth. This is all part of the increasing solar activity as the sun approaches the peak of its 11-year cycle.

Satellite and Grid Operators Alerted

Given that robust geomagnetic storms can disrupt communications and power grids on Earth, as well as satellites in space, Dahl noted that satellite and grid operators have been alerted to prepare.

“For most people here on planet Earth, they won’t have to do anything,” stated Steenburgh.

Navigating Uncertainty: Tracking the Solar Storm

Dahl mentioned that forecasters estimate the storm's potential arrival as early as around 8 p.m. ET on Friday.

"We’re less certain on the timing of these events, because we’re talking about something for 93 million miles away," he remarked, referring to the distance from the sun to the Earth.

To measure the solar wind and better understand the timing and potential impacts, forecasters will rely on data from a NASA spacecraft orbiting about 1 million miles from Earth, known as the Advanced Composition Explorer.

Northern Lights in Maine
Northern Lights in Maine Photo: AP

What Are The Northern Lights?

The northern lights, or aurora borealis, arise from charged particles emitted by the sun during solar storms. These vibrant displays occur when clouds of these energetic particles collide with Earth’s magnetic field and interact with the atoms and molecules in the planet’s upper atmosphere.

Typically visible at high latitudes, the northern lights can be observed farther south than usual during periods of intense solar activity.

Northern Lights Could Illuminate 'As Far South As Alabama and Northern California'

According to the forecast from the Space Weather Prediction Center, there's a chance that auroras on Friday night could be visible "as far south as Alabama and Northern California."

The agency offers an aurora dashboard, which gives brief forecasts of the northern lights. In clear conditions, the best viewing spots for auroras are dark areas far from city lights.

Dahl mentioned that smartphones might be capable of capturing images of the aurora at southern locations where the naked eye might not perceive anything unusual.

Solar Storm History: Past Events and Future Projections

The most severe solar storm ever recorded, in 1859, triggered auroras in Central America and potentially even Hawaii. "We are not expecting that," remarked NOAA space weather forecaster Shawn Dahl, "but it could approach similar levels."

According to NASA, another one of the most destructive geomagnetic storms occurred in 1989, resulting in approximately 6 million people in Montreal, Canada, losing power for nine hours. Certain areas of the northeastern U.S. and Sweden were also impacted during that event.

In 2002, a coronal mass ejection caused the failure of 38 commercial satellites.

The sun undergoes 11-year cycles from minimum to maximum activity. According to forecasts from NOAA and NASA, the current cycle, which commenced in late 2019, is projected to reach its peak with maximum activity in July 2025.