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.

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.