Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Geomagnetic Storm in Progress

The sun erupted late Sunday night with an M8.7 class flare, an earth-directed coronal mass ejection (CME), and a burst of fast moving, highly energetic protons known as a "solar energetic particle" event.  This is producing the strongest radiation storm since September 2005 according to NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center.

That news was flashed around the globe yesterday in preparation for the arrival of the CME.  It arrived at earth about 15z (11 a.m. ET) this morning.  It does not pose a threat to anyone on the surface, but some planes flying over the poles have been rerouted.

The event was captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.  The video shows the eruption toward the end.

From NASA:

What is a solar flare?

 A solar flare is an intense burst of radiation coming from the release of magnetic energy associated with sunspots. Flares are our solar system’s largest explosive events. They are seen as bright areas on the sun and they can last from minutes to hours. We typically see a solar flare by the photons (or light) it releases, at most every wavelength of the spectrum. The primary ways we monitor flares are in x-rays and optical light. Flares are also sites where particles (electrons, protons, and heavier particles) are accelerated.

What is a coronal mass ejection (CME)?

The outer solar atmosphere, the corona, is structured by strong magnetic fields. Where these fields are closed, often above sunspot groups, the confined solar atmosphere can suddenly and violently release bubbles of gas and magnetic fields called coronal mass ejections. A large CME can contain a billion tons of matter that can be accelerated to several million miles per hour in a spectacular explosion. Solar material streams out through the interplanetary medium, impacting any planet or spacecraft in its path. CMEs are sometimes associated with flares but can occur independently.

This storm is likely to cause enhanced auroral displays tonight as well as some navigational and electrical grid problems.  The potential problems will exist through tomorrow when the storm is expected to subside.

It is rare to see auroras as far south as South Carolina.  However, the chances increase during such storms.  It may be worth watching the skies tonight since they are expected to be clear.  Just be sure to bundle up, because it will be chilly.