By JIM THOMAS -- Soft Serve News, Posted: October 28, 2013
For the third time in less than seven days, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center has issued a 24 hour minor magnetic storm watch indicating a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) emanating from the Sun may be heading towards Earth. A CME is a fast moving cloud of charged particles which can cause a Northern Lights display.
The watch begins at the time indicated above. It should be noted that the beginning of the storm watch does not necessarily predict the arrival time of the CME cloud, rather it indicates that, within that 24 hour period, increased activity is expected. Real-time Aurora Borealis forecasts can be obtained at the Aurora Borealis Forecast
page at Soft Serve News.
One can also get free Aurora Alerts to let you know when the Northern Lights display is large via Facebook
NOAA: The State of the Science "contains lots of uncertainties"
The last two minor solar storm watches did not result in significant activity so we sought some insight from NOAA’s Space Weather Operations Chief, Bob Rutledge. “There is still a lot of scientific guess work with lots of uncertainty” surrounding these multi-day predictions. “It’s just the state of the science as it is now,” Rutledge explained.
Rutledge indicated “these minor storm watches
(G1 storm with a 5 Kp predicted) are typically grey areas, where the long term track record shows there is a 50% chance that the predicted level will be reached.” The initial NOAA storm watch preceding the large October 1, 2013 aurora was also one of these grey areas but resulted in a rather large storm.
The long term accuracy of "moderate storm watches
(G2 storm with a 6 Kp predicted) is better, with a storm hitting the predicted mark about two-thirds of the time." Rutledge noted there is generally a higher degree of certainty when NOAA predicts a moderate storm as opposed to a minor one. The moderate storm watches imply a more clear-cut earth directed CME.
Finally, Rutledge made clear that the highest degree of accuracy is the very short term forecast provided by the ACE satellite that is interposed between the sun and earth. This is the forecast data that Soft Serve News uses on its Aurora Borealis Forecast Page
NOAA estimates the CME currently headed towards Earth might produce a Kp number of 5, but as discussed above, that's never fully known until it hits Earth.
Strong CMEs can sometimes cause trouble for satellites and create problems with electrical grids by inducing currents as the CME cloud interacts with the magnetic field that surrounds the earth. It is this disturbance of the Earth's magnetic field that causes the Northern Lights. NOAA indicates that weak power grid fluctuations may occur.
The Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, can range from a faint green glow on the northern horizon to a multicolored, full-sky display which can be one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring scenes in nature.
WILL YOU BE ABLE TO SEE THE AURORA?
To determine if you can see the Northern Lights use the following three steps:
Step 1 -- Know your Location's "KP number."
The KP number is the Geomagnetic Activity Level. The stronger the Aurora, the larger the KP number and the further south it can be seen. Find the KP number for your location on the one of the maps below. On the night you wish to view, periodically check the real-time Aurora Borealis Forecast
. This will give you the KP number prediction for the Aurora for the next hour or so. If that number is greater or equal to the number on the map for your location, you're in luck. Even if the predicted number is one point too low, it still might be worth a look.
Europe & Asia
Step 2 -- Check the Weather.
Auroras happen in the upper atmosphere, so if there are clouds blocking your view of the stars, you won't be able to see the Aurora.
Step 3 -- Shop for a Dark Spot.
Get away from those city lights. Darkness is best for viewing the Aurora. The fewer competing light sources, the better. But it is also very important to remember the widest part of the Aurora is when the sun is on the opposite side of the earth. So late, nighttime (or early morning) dark tends to be best.
Experienced Northern Lights hunters are familiar with disappointment. Predictions of when the CME cloud hits the earth are not always accurate. Sometimes CME events produce much smaller displays than expected, or even none at all. Also, it is possible the main auroral event happens during the day and therefore can only be enjoyed by people on the other side of the world where it's dark.
Even with these uncertainties, seeing the grandeur of a powerful Aurora Borealis display may be a once in a lifetime event, so for some it's worth the gamble to try.