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Geomagnetic storm watch: Aurora Borealis may be visible

This is the first geomagnetic storm watch issued since 2005.
Aurora Borealis seen from Cut Bank on October 12, 2021
Posted at 5:54 AM, May 10, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-11 14:10:57-04

Government officials issued a geomagnetic storm watch for the first time since 2005, as five earth-directed coronal mass ejections were detected on the sun.

The solar flares are expected to begin hitting Earth's magnetic field on Friday and linger into Sunday. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) said that the aurora borealis (also known as Northern Lights) may be visible overnight Friday into Saturday as far south as Alabama.

The Space Weather Prediction Center is forecasting that nearly all of Canada and the U.S.-Canada border will be able to view an aurora, pending clear skies.

Here's a breakdown of why the SWPC made this call:

  • WHAT: "Several CMEs will quite likely reach Earth and lead to elevated geomagnetic activity."
  • EVENT: "A coronal mass ejection (CME) is an eruption of solar material. When they arrive at Earth, a geomagnetic storm can result."
  • WHY: "Watches at this level are very rare."
  • TIMING: "The CMEs are anticipated to merge and arrive at Earth by late on Friday, May 10th or early on Saturday, May 11th."
  • EFFECTS: "The Aurora may become visible over much of the northern half of the country, maybe as far south to Alabama or northern California."

Many northern U.S. states also will have a chance to see the aurora. In order to get the best viewing, make sure you are as far away from city lights as possible. Also, make sure you are looking toward the north.

"Several strong flares have been observed over the past few days and were associated with a large and magnetically complex sunspot cluster (NOAA region 3664), which is 16 times the diameter of Earth. Additional solar activity is expected from the region," the Space Weather Prediction Center said.

The Space Weather Prediction Center said that a severe geomagnetic storm can cause issues on the ground. Severe geomagnetic storms can cause electric grids to have "possible widespread voltage control problems, and some protective systems will mistakenly trip out key assets from the grid." The agency says spacecraft "may experience surface charging and tracking problems, corrections may be needed for orientation problems."

Officials said they have notified the operators of these systems so they can take protective action.

Explainer: Aurora Borealis