Solar Storm Could Light Up the Night Skies

Keep an eye on the skies starting on Friday night for what could be a dazzling display of nature — or not, depending on your location and weather conditions.

An unusual amount of solar flare activity means that the aurora borealis, or the northern lights, could appear in the sky with an arc of colors that can include green, purple and red.

If you’re in a place with a lot of bright lights — like a city — it’s going to be hard to see anything. And then there are other complications, like the weather.

The Northeast is likely to be blanketed in clouds on Friday night. In the Midwest, the skies could be clear after a storm system moves through.

With this intensity of solar storm activity, it’s possible the lights could be visible as far south as northern Alabama and Georgia, where night skies are expected to be relatively clear.

The southern Plains and Rockies, however, might have relatively poor viewing conditions.

On the West Coast, conditions should remain relatively cloud-free, which could make for good viewing.

Some of the lights may also be visible outside of the United States, in places like Denmark and other parts of Scandinavia.

In parts of Britain, there’s a good chance the lights will be visible, according to the country’s Met Space Weather Operations Center.

“With plenty of clear skies in the forecast, there is a good chance of seeing the Aurora across the northern half of the UK,” the agency said on social media.

Indeed, images of the lights over England just before midnight local time started to surface on social media, including photos from London, despite the city’s light pollution.

A tip: If you are in a clear area, even south of where the aurora is forecast, snap a picture or record a video with your cellphone.

The sensor on the camera is more sensitive to the wavelengths produced by the aurora and may produce an image you can’t see with the naked eye.

A severe solar storm is brewing.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center on Friday issued a rare warning after a solar outburst reached Earth.

As nuclear reactions occur on the sun, it routinely expels material from its surface.

Officials said that the solar activity could potentially cause electrical outages or interfere with navigation and communication systems.

The emissions can affect satellites orbiting close to Earth as well as infrastructure on the ground, leading to disruptions in navigation systems, radio communications and even the power grid.

The warning isn’t really targeted for members of the public, so just go about your day as you normally would. (Except maybe look up at the nighttime sky a little longer.)

“For most people here on planet Earth, they won’t have to do anything,” said Rob Steenburgh, a space scientist at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. “If everything is working like it should, the grid will be stable and they’ll be able to go about their daily lives.”

The expelled material from the sun could reach Earth’s atmosphere by Friday afternoon or evening, officials said.

“What we’re expecting over the next couple of days should be more significant than what we’ve seen, certainly so far,” Mike Bettwy, the operations chief at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, said at a news conference on Friday.

The Space Weather Prediction Center said on Friday night that we were experiencing an extreme solar storm, a level 5, up from a level 4 earlier in the day.

The last extreme event happened in October 2003 and resulted in power failures in Sweden and damaged transformers in South Africa, the center said.

The current storm is caused by a cluster of sunspots — dark, cool regions on the solar surface. The cluster is flaring and ejecting material every six to 12 hours.

“We anticipate that we’re going to get one shock after another through the weekend,” said Brent Gordon, chief of the space weather services branch at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

Katrina Miller and Judson Jones contributed reporting.

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