No Aurora For You

Aurora Australis on Antarctica

No aurora tonight. That wasn’t a surprise. For the past few days I told anyone who’d listen these are forecast a lot more than they happen!

It is a very unusual case for Connecticut to see aurora borealis. It does happen. Not often.

Earlier this week the Sun ‘belched’ a coronal mass ejection in our general direction. We see these happen at the speed-of-light. The actual effects of the CME takes three to four days to get here. That’s around a million miles per hour–much, much slower than light!

We know CMEs produce low latitude aurora. We just don’t know which CMEs! There is little skill in that regard.

The good news is even without predictions, the next big aurora will be the first of the social media age! I suspect most of us will know in an instant.

I’ve seen a few weak auroras and one very strong one. It was August 4, 1972. I was in North Olmsted, OH working as a disk jockey on 1220 WGAR, Cleveland.

My friend Joel, who’s in Detroit now, but was working at KDKA Pittsburgh back then, was visiting.

We stood in the parking lot of the two and a half story garden apartment building I lived in and looked north over the rooftop. The sky was shimmering with a fluorescence that formed curtains.

It’s difficult to explain if you haven’t seen it, but it took my breath away. It also scared me, though I knew it was harmless. It was that powerful a presence in the nighttime sky, unlike anything I’d seen before or since.

Someday I’d like to go to Iceland or Alaska in the early spring, before those summer days when the sky never really gets dark. I’m told the aurora borealis is common on clear nights. Clicky and I would like to document it.

Until then I’ll have to keep the memory of North Olmsted.

Aurora No Show

This time the CME was aimed directly at Earth! Sometimes this type of event triggers strong auroras that form farther south of the pole than usual. If we’re lucky we get to see it.

The Aurora Borealis is a no show over Connecticut tonight after the possibility was raised it might be seen. We know the conditions conducive to aurora, but not the exact mix necessary at any given minute. Aurora forecasting skill today is where weather forecasting was 30 years ago or so it seems to me.

I’ve been following the word “aurora” on Twitter. In 2012 that’s probably the best way to search for this though you’d make it easier if you stopped using it as a name or giving it as a name to towns!.

The trigger for tonight’s chance was a Coronal Mass Ejection. Every time I say that phrase the person on the receiving end lets me know it sounds vaguely obscene.

Though it travels at a high rate of speed a CME is much slower than the speed of light. We knew it was coming.

CME describes the forceful release of energy into space. Most times these CMEs are aimed elsewhere. Our satellites observe, but it’s just curiosity. Misses leave us unaffected.

This time the CME was aimed directly at Earth! Sometimes this type of event triggers strong auroras that form farther south of the pole than usual. If we’re lucky we get to see it.

I’ve only seen an aurora once, but it was amazing! I was living in North Olmsted, Ohio. It was August 2, 1972. Thank you Internet.

Solar astronomers reported that Active Region 331 had produced three powerful flares during a span of 15 hours. The intensity of these flares, classified as ‘X2’ were near the limits of the scale used to classify solar flare X-ray power. The next day, the Pioneer 9 spacecraft detected a shock wave from the first of these flares at 11:24 UT accompanied by a sudden change in the solar wind speed from 350 to 585 km/sec.

Space weather forecasters at the Space Environment Services Center in Boulder Colorado issued an alert that predicted a major storm would arrive at the earth between August 4. They were not disappointed. Armed with vastly improved technology and scientific ideas, they were able to realize William Ellis’s 1882 dream of predicting a solar storm. At 4:00 UT, aurora were seen simultaneously from Illinois to Colorado and the events of this storm were widely reported in major international newspapers.

At 22:30 UT AT&T reported a voltage surge of 60 volts on their coaxial telephone cable between Chicago and Nebraska. Another 30 minute shutdown of phone service on Bell’s cable link between Plano, Illinois and Cascade, Iowa was also attributed to the storm. Both the Canadian Overseas Telecommunications Corporation and Canadian National Telecommunications reported that the current surges in their lines had damaged components in their system ranging from noise filters to ‘carbon blocks’ Taxi drivers received orders from distant cities and were forced to turn down lucrative transcontinental fares!

Paul Linger of the Denver Zoo said that the disruption of the Earth’s magnetic field by the storms would disorient pigeons who depend upon the field for their sense of direction.

My friend Joel Alexander now flying JetCopter760 at WJR Detroit was visiting.

We stood in the parking lot in front of my apartment and stared over the building and to the north. In the sky was a shimmering green luminescent curtain. There’s no way to describe how surreal that was.

I know they’re harmless now. I knew they were harmless then. It still scared the living s**t out of me–seriously!

So, obviously we all get a little excited thinking there might be another once in my lifetime opportunity.

I’ll keep looking.

Phenomenal Aurora – I Missed It!

Earlier this evening, the heavens glowed in shades of red as the Aurora Borealis moved far enough south to be seen in Connecticut.

I received dozens of emails from happy people, thrilled to witness this rare event. Some folks say once in a lifetime, but that’s overdoing it.

Because auroras happen in the dark, it is very difficult to capture them on film. Digital cameras, not as sensitive as their film cousins, make it even more unlikely. I’m not sure how, but one viewer, Mike Jensen of Oakdale, CT was able to get it in his viewfinder, and the result is amazing. The shot is looking over Gardners Lake, Salem CT at about 7:30 PM 10/30/03.

I have only seen the Northern Lights once myself. I was living in Cleveland at the time, and my friend Joel was visiting from Pittsburgh. We sat outside and stared. I remember understanding what it was, but being petrified anyway. The colors undulated, as if it were a curtain of some gas headed our way.

I wish I could have seen it tonight. I’m glad I gave others a reasonable heads up.

Blown Out of Proportion

I got an email this morning from a mailing list at Sky and Telescope Magazine run by Cary Oler:

It is remarkable how often the news media take scattered facts, throw

them together incorrectly and then claim authenticity. Such was the case in

abundance for the space weather storm of 24 October. Media reports that this

storm would be a “perfect storm” or the “once in a 100 year event” were

shamefully inaccurate.

I guess I was one of those taken in. But why? I’m usually pretty cynical of these things, even when the Drudge headline said ‘Perfect space storm’ coming to Earth… ” I still did loads of research on-line trying to understand what was going on.

If this wasn’t big, then NASA’s website wasn’t helping:

This week researchers have been observing an enormous sunspot the size of Jupiter. As a result of associated flares, NOAA predicts strong geomagnetic storms to hit Earth on Friday with the potential to affect electrical grids and satellite communications. Aurora may be visible as far south as Oregon and Illinois. Meanwhile, scientists are watching another large sunspot rotate toward us with potential for even more powerful and prevalent explosions.

And, from another NASA site:

Earlier this week, a large sunspot region caught the attention of many sungazers around the world. Sunspot region 10484 was associated with several powerful solar flares, including one X-class event (the most powerful category). The sunspots in the region covers more than 1700 millionths of the visible solar surface, or 10 times the surface of the entire Earth!

But hold on! Another region, number 10486, has rotated onto the solar disk, showing even more signs of activity. And this particular region caught the attention of solar physicists while it was still on the far side of the Sun! In the MDI instrument’s far side imaging pictures, it showed considerable development over a short period of time. The rapid growth was noted by KehCheng Chu of Stanford University, but the fact was not widely publicized. “The data were a bit scarce, and there was a chance that the images were influenced by this,” says Phil Scherrer, Principal Investigator for MDI.

The speculations have been vindicated by a lot of activity (including an even stronger X flare) coming from this new region. Although not quite as large in sunspot area (1160 millionths of the visible surface), it is still considered somewhat more likely to produce the most powerful flares.

I’m not upset that I got to talk about the flares and sunspots. There’s great supporting video and hopefully people got a little more understanding of what’s going on in space. I’m more worried that people in the scientific community are willing to exaggerate.

Science is the last place that should happen.

Aurora – No Show

As of this hour, the auroral ring is way, way north of here. It’s just not going to happen. A real shame too because the sky is clear and dark, just a day before the new moon.