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Rare sight of an aurora borealis in Indiana

A multitude of coronal mass ejections originating from the sun during a solar storm illuminated an aurora borealis in various regions of the world, including Southern Indiana, on May 10, 2024.Credit: Jeremy Hogan / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Additional vibrant light displays may become apparent in the atmosphere above the Northern Hemisphere as a potent solar storm intensifies.

An extraordinary geomagnetic storm that initiated last week is anticipated to escalate, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as multiple coronal mass ejections are anticipated to impact Earth’s outer atmosphere in space later on May 12.

This implies that individuals who have not yet witnessed the rare spectacle of an aurora borealis may still have the opportunity to do so. Individuals across the United States, United Kingdom, and various other global locations reported seeing the Northern Lights on Saturday, a phenomenon usually observed only near the North Pole during nighttime. Correspondingly, a similar phenomenon can be witnessed near Antarctica.

The sun released a powerful solar flare—a massive outburst of energy—at 12:26 p.m. ET on Sunday. This flare was categorized as an X-1.0, ranking among the most potent flares observed. Experts cautioned that this event could result in temporary disturbances or signal loss for users of high-frequency radio communication.

“Solar flares propel vast amounts of energy hurtling through space at the speed of light,” as stated by NASA. “Occasionally, flares are accompanied by significant solar eruptions known as coronal mass ejections.”

The array of colors exhibited by an aurora is the consequence of electrons propelled from the sun during solar storms. When these charged particles reach Earth, they follow the planet’s invisible magnetic field lines into the atmosphere, where they interact with the air. Upon colliding with gases, the particles heat up and emit light, as per NASA.

The colors vary based on the atmospheric gas type and altitude. Oxygen emits red or blue hues, while nitrogen can produce green, blue, or pink shades. The recent intense solar storm conditions have led to a more expansive aurora around the north pole, enabling individuals residing farther south to witness them.

Analogous to storm seasons on Earth, the sun undergoes a cyclical pattern every 11 years. At the commencement and conclusion of the cycle, solar activity is at its calmest. However, activity intensifies as the cycle progresses, reaching its peak midway and causing the sun to seethe with massive eruptions.

Presently, the cycle is approaching its peak, nearing its maximum point in mid-2025. This explains the surge in reports concerning solar flares and coronal mass ejections—plasma expelled from the sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona—that are disseminated in the media.

Coronal mass ejections, such as those directed towards Earth, or CMEs, are referred to as “space weather.” Despite the sun being approximately 93 million miles away, space weather can impact Earth and other regions of the solar system.

Scientific predictions regarding space weather remain limited. Nevertheless, Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field serve as protective barriers against the most severe health implications of solar radiation. Nonetheless, these events can wreak havoc on technology, causing disruptions to power grids, telecommunications, and GPS systems.

Although these events are infrequent, a solar flare in March 1989 led to a widespread 12-hour power outage throughout Quebec, Canada, as an example. It also interfered with radio signals for Radio Free Europe.

Prior to Sunday’s flare, the sun unleashed two additional potent solar flares just before 9:30 p.m. ET on Friday and 8 a.m. ET on Saturday, according to NASA. The Solar Dynamics Observatory of the U.S. space agency, which continuously monitors the sun, has also captured images of these incidents. The preceding two flares were identified as X-5.8 and X-1.5, respectively.

NOAA, responsible for monitoring the storm on behalf of the U.S. government, has indicated that these flares appear to be associated with a sunspot estimated to be approximately 15 times wider than Earth.

Robert White

Robert is a dedicated tech journalist who thrives on uncovering the human stories behind technological advancements.

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