A solar storm could produce northern lights in US

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — An unusually strong solar storm hitting Earth could produce northern lights across the United States this weekend and potentially disrupt power and communications.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a rare severe geomagnetic storm warning when a solar burst reached Earth Friday afternoon, hours earlier than expected. The effects were expected to last through the weekend and possibly into next week.

NOAA alerted operators of power plants and orbiting spacecraft to take precautions, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“For most people here on planet Earth, they won’t have to do anything,” said Rob Steenburgh, a scientist at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

AP correspondent Shelley Adler reports that a solar storm could have an effect on the United States.

The storm could produce northern lights as far south in the United States as Alabama and Northern California, according to NOAA. But it was difficult to predict and experts stressed that it would not be the spectacular curtains of color normally associated with the Northern Lights, but rather pops of greenish hues.

“That’s really the gift of space weather: the northern lights,” Steenburgh said. He and his colleagues said the best views of aurora might come from phone cameras, which capture light better than the naked eye.

Take a photo of the sky and “there might be a little treat there for you,” said Mike Bettwy, chief of operations for the forecast center.

The most intense solar storm in recorded history, in 1859, brought auroras to Central America and perhaps even Hawaii. “We’re not predicting that,” but it could be close, said Shawn Dahl, a NOAA space meteorologist.

This storm — rated 4 on a scale of 1 to 5 — poses a risk to high-voltage transmission lines in power grids, not power lines typically found in homes, Dahl told reporters. Satellites could also be affected, potentially disrupting navigation and communications services on Earth.

An extreme geomagnetic storm in 2003, for example, knocked out power in Sweden and damaged power transformers in South Africa.

Even after the storm passes, signals between GPS satellites and ground receivers could be jammed or lost, according to NOAA. But there are so many navigation satellites that the outages shouldn’t last long, Steenburgh noted.

The sun has produced strong solar flares since Wednesday, resulting in at least seven plasma explosions. Each flare – known as a coronal mass ejection – can contain billions of tons of plasma and magnetic field from the Sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona.

The flares appear to be associated with a sunspot whose diameter is 16 times that of Earth, according to NOAA. It’s all part of solar activity that intensifies as the sun approaches the peak of its 11-year cycle.

NASA said the storm posed no serious threat to the seven astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The biggest concern is increased radiation levels, and the crew could move to a better-protected part of the station if necessary, according to Steenburgh.

Increased radiation could also threaten some NASA science satellites. The extremely sensitive instruments will be turned off, if necessary, to avoid damage, said Antti Pulkkinen, director of the space agency’s heliophysics science division.

Multiple sun-focused spacecraft monitor all the action.

“This is exactly the kind of thing we want to observe,” Pulkkinen said.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Education Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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