Another solar storm — also referred to as a geomagnetic storm — is due for tonight in the high latitudes of the globe due to a hole that has opened up in the sun’s corona, or outer atmosphere, causing northern lights to appear above the horizon.
This disturbance, part of the Sun’s normal cycle, in which plasma and geomagnetic fields are launched into space, will most likely occasion power grid and satellite orientation problems along with high-frequency radiowave issues. This may result in problems using GPS systems since they are reliant on satellite positioning and communications.
But that will all be worthwhile for stargazers, as they will be treated to some spectacular displays of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, as far south as New York tonight.
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), along with the British Met Office, say that tonight’s storm, the fruit of several solar coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar winds that will be exploding from the hole in the corona, will be a relatively mild one regarding problems caused to humans.
The CMEs that that astronomers believe will take place tonight will be rated only as a G2 in size, with G5 the strongest solar storm that could take place.
The NOAA says that a Fall treat may occur for lucky skywatchers in that the resultant “Aurora may be seen as low as New York to Wisconsin to Washington state.”
Such cyclical events are in the normal pattern for our Sun, which periodically emits huge flaming fingers of plasma into space. Experts say that there will be more such occurrences in the upcoming years, with solar winds causing disruptions to our magnetic fields and the upper atmosphere on Earth to follow.
Northern lights occur when plasma from Sun strikes Earth’s magnetic field
CMEs can of course take place anywhere on the Sun’s outer surface; however, if one happens when the Earth is in its direct path, the collision of the solar plasma with the magnetic field that encircles the Earth can cause a geomagnetic storm.
Beautiful to look at from space — and from Earth as well, as iridescent hues dance across the poles — these “solar storms” cause all manner of havoc if they occur at the wrong times.
The holes in the Sun’s corona consist of cooler, less dense areas of plasma; they also have more open magnetic fields, which poses ongoing issues for us here on Earth.
This allows solar winds to blow electromagnetic radiation into space at enormous velocities.
If it just so happens in our planet’s trip around the Sun that that hole is oriented toward Earth when the solar winds start blowing, those solar projections can blow straight at us, causing not only for a beautiful multicolor extravaganza at the poles but all sorts of telecommunications problems as well.
For better or worse, this is what will be happening tonight. As the British met office says on its website, “There are four CME which may affect the Earth.
“Three of these could arrive separately or as a single combined feature during September 27, with a further CME perhaps glancing the earth later on the 27th or during September 28. A coronal hole fast wind may also affect the Earth on September 27 and 28, although any effects from this wind are considered uncertain.
“There is also a low risk that the CMEs and fast wind may affect the earth at similar times, providing a greater effect. Any enhancements would then ease during September 28 and 29.”
When the earth is the recipient of these plasma flameouts and solar winds, charged particles that collide with our magnetic field are sent flying, along the lines of the magnetic fields, toward the poles. After massing there, they then shower down into the upper atmosphere of the Earth, colliding with the molecules there and causing the stunning lights we call the aurora borealis or the Aurora australis.
The resulting lights, sometimes forming enormous multicolored curtains, are the most spectacular sights to be seen in our night skies.
Despite this event not being one of the strongest geomagnetic storms, at G2 on the scale, the light show will be one of the brighter ones in recent times.
Space Weather’s aurora forecast calls for the solar storm to give those in the Northern hemisphere a show of Kp 6 on the ten-point Kp index for geomagnetic storms — meaning there is a strong possibility of being able to see bright auroras, with a likelihood of auroral coronae around the pole.
The Sun, as part of its normal 11-year-long cycle, is now experiencing the most active time of all. Called the “solar maximum,” this means that the solar magnetic field is at its strongest point.
This also means that all possible activity related to this magnetic field is at its most volatile, with sunspots (the areas of especially strong magnetism), solar flares reaching out into space and coronal mass ejections becoming common.
Earlier in 2021 the Sun emitted its most powerful flare in four years, in an event captured in September of 2017.
Its peak activity is expected to occur as part of the cycle in July 2025, after which things will calm down once again into what astronomers call the “solar minimum.” For now, however, enjoy the light show, and just remember when those electronic devices start acting up, it’s all worthwhile to see such a spectacular display.