Bursts of solar radiation could make 'Northern Lights' visible across parts of U.S.

September 11, 2014|By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun

Two solar flares that occurred this week are speeding toward Earth, possibly causing minor disruptions for radio technology and power grids, and also making the aurora borealis appear much farther south than normal.

Neither flare was particularly powerful, but it's unusual that two moderate events would occur in such quick succession, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials said Thursday. They could combine to make for a moderate to strong geomagnetic storm on Earth.

That could allow the phenomenon known as the "Northern Lights" to be seen as far south as the Baltimore area -- though residents shouldn't expect to see the postcard-like views of bright red or green ribbons and curtains in the sky. Light pollution can also outshine any glow that might be visible.

"It would be very rare to walk out of your house in any major metropolitan area to see the aurora," William Murtagh, program coordinator for the Space Weather Prediction Center, said on a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon.

In remote parts of northern Maryland, a reddish glow could be visible Friday night into early Saturday morning, Murtagh said, but it can be fleeting and occurring in the middle of the night. The view also requires clear skies.

Two bursts of solar radiation were ejected from the sun this week, the larger one at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday. The earlier and smaller one is expected to arrive Thursday night, with the larger one following late Friday night into early Saturday morning.

That could disrupt radio communications and cause voltage irregularities in the power grid in areas close to Earth's poles, but major disruptions are not expected.

"We don’t expect any unmanageable impacts," said Thomas Berger, director of the Space Weather Prediction Center.

But space weather forecasters are watching for the possibility of more significant impacts, in the case that the two ejections of radiation interact with each other.

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