By JIM THOMAS -- Soft Serve News, Posted: February 12, 2014
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Space Weather Prediction Center has issued two consecutive 24 hour magnetic storm watches 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 watches begins at the time indicated above. It should be noted that the beginning of a storm watch does not necessarily predict the arrival time of the CME cloud, rather it indicates that, within that period, increased activity is expected. Real-time Aurora Borealis forecasts can be obtained at the Aurora Borealis Forecast
page at Soft Serve News.
(Note: if you'd like to be receive text, email or phone-call Aurora Alerts, customized for your location, you can receive personal Aurora Alerts
NOAA estimates the CME currently headed towards Earth might first produce a Kp number of 5 ("minor" storm) and later possibly a Kp number of 6 ("moderate" storm), but that's never fully known until it hits Earth. NOAA’s Space Weather Operations Chief, Bob Rutledge has indicated “these minor storm watches
(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 long term accuracy of "moderate storm watches (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. The second storm watch is a "moderate" storm watch.
Stronger 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 power grid fluctuations may occur and that high-latitude power systems may experience voltage alarms. Further, spacecraft and satellite orientation irregularities may occur, and increased drag on low Earth-orbit satellites is possible.
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.