Tuesday’s Aurora, But Not For Me

Aurora_Borealis_PosterWhen it comes to Sun and fun, few places compare with Southern California. Not Tuesday night.

On Tuesday our normally perfect location prevented us from seeing one of the Sun’s coolest effects: the Aurora Borealis, aka the Northern Lights.

From our vantage the Sun is unchanging. Looks can be deceiving.

If we could remove the Sun’s glare we’d be able to see constant activity on its surface and from time-to-time a Coronal Mass Ejection. In a CME huge clouds of charged particles are blasted from the Sun into space. When I’ve seen satellite images of CMEs they always make me think the Sun is burping!

The direction of these blasts are random, meaning sometimes they’re pointed at Earth!

They vary in speed, but Coronal Mass Ejections average around 1,000,000 mph. That sounds fast until you realize light travels at 670,616,629 mph! That means we see the CMEs before they get here and it helps solar forecasters make predictions to protect sensitive equipment.

The CMEs hit the Earth’s ‘day side,’ distort the our magnetic field and release energy into the upper atmosphere in the terawatt range on the ‘night side.’ A terawatt is 1,000,000,000,000 watts–a thousand times more that a gigawatt (Yes, gigawatts exist outside “Back to the Future”).

All this energy can cause the upper atmosphere to glow. That’s the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights! Most of the time the lights are centered near the Earth’s magnetic poles. That why Alaskans commonly see them as do residents of Scandinavia, Russia and Canada.

Depending on the energy received from the Sun (and a few more variable guaranteed to set your head spinning) the Northern Lights can extend south from the polar regions. Tuesday they were visible in Northern New England and Eastern Canada.

Do we ever see the aurora from SoCal? It’s extremely rare, but not impossible. In 2001 the Northern Lights were seen on Mount Wilson! One can hope.

Aurora Borealis

The phone rang this afternoon. It was a woman who had been spending some time on spaceweather.com. She said they had reported tonight might be a good night to see the Aurora Borealis. There had been a CME, a coronal mass ejection, from the surface of the Sun. That would interact with the Earth’s magnetic field causing an eerie glow.

A few times a year I’ll let people know the aurora might make an appearance and I am mostly wrong. Auroras are more likely to come when I say nothing! Obviously, they are very difficult to predict. I wish that wasn’t so.

I have only seen a strong aurora once. It was sometime in the early 70s. I was living in North Olmsted, Ohio and working in Cleveland at WGAR radio. I remember my friend Joel (who is now the copter guy in Detroit) was visiting from Pittsburgh.

When we first saw the luminescent curtain in the northern sky, I thought it was neat. As time went on, I got worried. The truth is, there’s no danger from an aurora and I knew that, even then. But the curtain of light was so weird, so unusual, you couldn’t help taking pause. And, over time, it looked like it was undulating toward us. Probably an optical illusion of some sort.

There’s a theory I have that we didn’t see the aurora earlier tonight because I was so well equipped to show it – some sort of Murphy’s Law for television. We had four cameras on distant rooftops to point and the chopper was flying in the cloudless skies over Hartford.

Maybe next time. Maybe later tonight. You never know.

It’s the Sun, Stupid

Here we go again. After getting burned (just a little) last week with ‘strong’ solar flares and the chance of Aurora Borealis, this news from space.com:

The Sun today unleashed what appears to be the third most powerful flare in recorded history, a storm of charged particles that could hit Earth mid-day Wednesday with more effect than any since 1989, when an entire Canadian province had its power knocked out.

Depending on the storm’s magnetic orientation, it could set off a dramatic display of colorful northern lights well into mid-latitudes of the United States and Europe.

Since the particles left the Sun at an astounding 4,000,000 mph (At that speed, New York to Los Angeles takes about 2&#188 seconds), there could be an aurora tonight. Of course by tonight I expect loads of clouds and probably rain.

Maybe that’s actually a blessing?