SciTech

Major solar storm pulls northern lights south

The aurora borealis, or the northern lights as they are commonly known are photographed, over Dunstanburgh Castle, in Northumberland, England, Tuesday Feb. 17, 2015. (AP Photo/PA, Owen Humphreys)
The aurora borealis, or the northern lights as they are commonly known are photographed, over Dunstanburgh Castle, in Northumberland, England, Tuesday Feb. 17, 2015. (AP Photo/PA, Owen Humphreys) AP

A severe solar storm smacked Earth with a surprisingly big geomagnetic jolt Tuesday, potentially affecting power grids and GPS tracking while pushing the colorful northern lights farther south, possibly as far as North Carolina, federal forecasters said.

Before sunrise Tuesday, auroras were already seen in the northern tier of the U.S., such as Washington state, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Space Weather branch chief Brent Gordon said if the storm’s effects continued through Tuesday evening, there was a “very strong possibility” that the northern lights could be seen as far south as Tennessee and Oklahoma.

NOAA scientists said the event should last roughly 24 to 36 hours.

Two blasts of magnetic plasma left the sun on Sunday, combined and arrived on Earth about 15 hours earlier and much stronger than expected, said Thomas Berger, director of the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.

This storm ranks a 4, called severe, on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 1-to-5 scale for geomagnetic effects. It is the strongest solar storm to blast Earth since the fall of 2013. It’s been nearly a decade since a level 5 storm, termed extreme, has hit Earth.

Forecasters figured it would come late Tuesday night into Wednesday morning; instead, it arrived just before 10 a.m. They had forecast it to be a level 1.

“It’s significantly stronger than expected,” Berger said. Forecasters had predicted a glancing blow instead of dead-on hit. One theory is that the combination of the two storms made it worse, but it’s too early to tell if that’s so, he said.

So far no damage has been reported.

The storm has the potential to disrupt power grids, but only temporarily. It also could cause degradation of the global positioning system, so tracking maps and locators may not be as precise as normal.

Often these types of storms come with bursts of radiation that can affect satellite operations, but this one has not, Berger said.

But the most noticeable effect is usually considered a positive. The Aurora Borealis or northern lights, which usually can be viewed only in the far north, will dip south – allowing more people to enjoy the spectacle.

Much of Russia and northern Europe, as far south as central Germany and Poland, had the potential for the sky show.

The sky has to be clear of clouds for a good view, but the crescent moon will appear small enough that it shouldn’t interfere with viewing the aurora if it is in the sky, Gordon said.

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