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Sun unleashes massive flare, aurora possible in northern skies

Tuesday’s solar flare (NASA/SDO)

The polar vortex has exited, but a solar storm may be next on the  agenda for the atmosphere in parts of the U.S.

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory recorded the sun emitting an X-class flare on Jan. 7, 2014, the first of the year. This may result in aurora (northern lights) into the northern U.S. and perhaps a bit farther south. (Video courtesy of NASA)

(Video of Tuesday’s solar flare from NASA)

An X-class solar flare – the strongest kind – burst off the sun Tuesday – the first of 2014. Its collection of plasma has organized into something called a coronal mass ejection (CME), and is headed in the general direction of Earth. This may result in aurora (northern lights) into the northern U.S. and perhaps even a bit farther south Thursday and/or Friday.

“…if you live in the northern latitudes, you will have a good shot at seeing the northern lights on the 9th and 10th, if you have clear skies!,” writes NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

While solar storms may spawn visually stunning skies, they also pose certain hazards. The associated radiation can harm spacecraft and satellites

“…if you were planning to do a space walk in the next few days, it would probably be a good idea to postpone!” NOAA writes. “Wouldn’t want you out there doing a space walk with protons headed our way!”

A planned spacecraft launch to the International Space Station from Wallops Island in Virginia today was scrubbed due to the storm.

“A huge solar flare unleashed by the sun has delayed plans to launch a private cargo ship to the International Space Station today (Jan. 8) due to worry over space weather radiation,” notes

The launch is tentatively rescheduled for Thursday, but will depend on space weather conditions.

In severe to extreme solar storm events, the associated geomagnetic activity can interfere with power grids on Earth. NOAA is predicting this geomagnetic storm will be strong, but not extreme, with a peak rating of 3 on its 1-5 scale.

“… a partial impact to the magnetic field that protects Earth is expected and a resulting geomagnetic storm as high as G3 (strong) levels is forecast to begin early to midday (UTC) on Thursday, 9 January (just after midnight Early morning hours EST).”

Storms of this magnitude are not uncommon.

“Approximately 130 days of G3 conditions occur every 11 years, so this isn’t something out of the ordinary – though it has been a while,” NOAA says.

The source of the solar flare and related coronal mass ejection is a massive sunspot region known as AR1944 – one of the biggest of the decade says

Via NASA/SDO: “One of the largest sunspots in the last nine years, labeled AR1944, was seen in early January 2014, as captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.”

“The sprawling active region is more than 200,000 km wide and contains dozens of dark cores,” writes “Its primary core, all by itself, is large enough to swallow Earth three times over.”

Related links:

Understanding space weather forecasts and the risk of solar storms

Are we ready yet for potentially disastrous impacts of space weather?

GALLERY: Mind-blowing images from space 


Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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