Multiple solar eruptions have created a spectacle that could be visible in some parts of the United States and Europe later this week. Plasma from the sun’s corona has been released following explosions on the sun, referred to as coronal mass ejections (CMEs). These CMEs have the potential to cause geomagnetic storms and beautiful auroras.
Although solar storms have the capacity to disrupt radio communication and GPS, the upcoming storm is not expected to have a significant impact on our technological infrastructure. However, it may provide a mesmerizing display of the Northern Lights. The potential reach of the aurora borealis remains uncertain, but it could be visible as far south as Illinois and Oregon.
A NASA satellite detected a powerful solar flare on Tuesday, which caused shortwave radio communication outages across the South Pacific Ocean and parts of the Americas. Typically, electromagnetic radiation from solar flares takes around eight minutes to reach Earth, while CMEs take two to three days. Images from satellites have displayed a halo cloud expanding away from the sun, indicating plasma heading directly toward our planet.
The CME from Tuesday’s solar flare has the potential to amalgamate with other CMEs, possibly leading to a “cannibal” CME that could bring about strong geomagnetic storms. The forecast for a “G3” geomagnetic storm by the end of the week has the potential to cause disruption to satellite navigation and radio communications, in addition to causing captivating auroras to appear as far south as Illinois and Oregon.
CMEs can carry an extraordinary amount of solar material, and “cannibal” CMEs are more frequent during the peak of the sun’s 11-year solar cycle, which is expected to peak between January and October 2024, according to NOAA. The NASA space weather model suggests that the geomagnetic storm will hit Earth around midday Friday, but it could arrive even earlier.
The mesmerizing aurora displays associated with geomagnetic storms are typically seen near the Earth’s poles, but the strongest CMEs can result in them being visible farther south into the mid-latitudes. The northern lights might be visible overhead as far south as Minneapolis and Milwaukee, and as far south as Boise, Idaho; Cheyenne, Wyo.; Lincoln, Neb.; Indianapolis; and Annapolis, Md., if weather conditions permit.
Forecasting these events is complex, especially with multiple eruptions arriving within a short time frame. Previous G3 geomagnetic storms have resulted in awe-inspiring auroras visible even as far south as Texas and North Carolina. The best chance to witness this astronomical phenomenon is from locations far away from city lights or using long camera exposures if you’re in more-southern latitudes.