Solar storm, largest since 2005, causes aurora borealis over Canada, Britain

The largest solar storm since 2005, which hit Earth over the weekend and caused northern lights called auroras, peaked Tuesday after the Sun released a solar flare of radiation and plasma. As Brian Vastag reported:

Fast on the heels of a solar storm that delivered a glancing blow over the weekend — triggering bright auroras in Canada and Scandinavia — the sun released an even more energetic blast of radiation and charged plasma overnight that could disrupt GPS signals and the electrical grid Tuesday, especially at high latitudes, space weather experts warned Monday.

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The Northern Lights lit up the skies above Scotland and northern England after the biggest solar storm in more than six years bombarded Earth with radiation. Video shot last weekend shows the effect of the Aurora Borealis above Norway. (Jan. 24)

The Northern Lights lit up the skies above Scotland and northern England after the biggest solar storm in more than six years bombarded Earth with radiation. Video shot last weekend shows the effect of the Aurora Borealis above Norway. (Jan. 24)

Already, the storm could be affecting satellite communications as streams of radiation from the sun bounce across the Earth’s magnetic field, which extends above the surface into space.

With the radiation storm in progress now, satellite operators could be experiencing trouble, and there are probably impacts as well to high-frequency [radio] communications in polar regions,” said Doug Biesecker, a physicist at the Space Weather Prediction Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo.

Such radio blackouts can force airlines to reroute flights between North America and Europe or Asia.

Biesecker said any rocket launches scheduled for Monday probably would have to be scrubbed, although he said he was unaware of any.

The solar storm is the biggest since 2005, he added.

The storm will peak Tuesday when a speeding cloud of plasma and charged particles blasts past Earth, distorting the planet’s magnetic field with impacts possibly ranging as far south in latitude as Texas and Arizona.

The solar storm created light shows called northern lights over England and Canada on Tuesday, with more expected in days to come. As AP explained:

The northern lights have lit up the skies above Scotland, northern England and northern parts of Ireland — and more light shows are expected in the next few days.

The northern lights are sometimes seen from northern Scotland but they were also visible Monday night from northeast England and Ireland, where such sightings are a rarity.

Ken Kennedy, director of the Aurora section of the British Astronomical Association, said the northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, may be visible for a few more days.

The Canadian Space Agency posted a geomagnetic storm warning Tuesday after residents were also treated to a spectacular show in the night sky.

Monday night’s auroras were likely just variations in normal background solar wind, not the solar storm that erupted Sunday, said physicist Doug Biesecker at the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado. That was the biggest solar storm in more than six years.

He said a geomagnetic storm Tuesday that came from that solar storm seemed to mostly miss Earth, going a bit north, so it was unlikely that auroras would extend too far south Tuesday night.

While scientists have rated this solar storm below an extreme event, some warn of more powerful solar storms in the next few years. As Melissa Bell reported:

Streaming toward Earth right now is a blast of radiation and charged plasma the sun released Sunday night. Space weather experts warned about possible damage to the electrical grid when the charged particles hit Earth with full force midday Tuesday.

Despite the warnings that the solar storm would be the biggest since 2005, the National Weather Service is rating the storm a 3 on a scale of 1 (minor) to 5 (extreme).

Prof. W. Jeffrey Hughes, director of the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling at Boston University, said that the storm was significant only in relation to the past six years, but when put into historical perspective, it was probably not going to be a major storm — and that far larger storms will most likely occur over the next two years.

“In the last six years, we’ve gone through the quietest solar period in more than a 100 years,” Hughes said. Next year will be a maximum peak for sun activity, so Hughes says the solar disturbances are predictable.

“Activity should pick up over the next few years. This is the biggest taste of what’s going to come next year and 2014.” Solar activity waxes and wanes on a roughly 11-year cycle. Hughes says the sun has been relatively quiet since 2002.

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