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Solar eruptions mean be alert for Northern Lights tonight

Solar eruptions mean be alert for Northern Lights tonight

Wednesday Update: The solar storm fizzled before nighttime could reach Seattle, but there is another chance Wednesday night. More info in our Wednesday blog.

It's a quasi-rare opportunity in the Northwest, but there is a chance Tuesday and Wednesday night of seeing the Northern Lights around here.

There was at least one, and possibly two solar eruptions from the Earth-facing side of the sun on Sunday. As that energy burst races through space toward Earth, NOAA forecasters expect a 10 percent chance of a major geomagnetic storm and a 45 percent chance of decent geomagnetic activity, according to spaceweather.com.

(Actually, it is quite the activity on the sun. To quote the website: "On August 1st, the entire Earth-facing side of the sun erupted in a tumult of activity. There was a C3-class solar flare, a solar tsunami, multiple filaments of magnetism lifting off the stellar surface, large-scale shaking of the solar corona, radio bursts, a coronal mass ejection and more." You can see the eruption here.

Suffice to say, the sun was busy this weekend.

So, what does that mean for us?

Solar flares are harmless to humans as we are protected by the Earth's magnetic field. But the same can not be said for certain electronics. Really good solar storms can mess with satellites and communications -- even affecting the power grid. An infamous solar storm in 1989 knocked out power to 6 million people in Quebec.

This excellent site gives a great detailed history of solar storms and their effects on our way of life. However, solar flares are the primary cause of the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights.

Normally confined to the far northern latitudes, a big solar flare can, and have, make the Northern Lights visible in Washington. Wade B. Clark, Jr. of Sedro-Woolley has captured several fantastic Northern Lights photos around this area over the years. Some of the really big storms can make the aurora visible into the tropics.

Where to see them?

If they are out, you want to get someplace dark, because city lights will wash them out. We should be fairly clear this evening in the lowlands. Normally I say head to the mountains, but unfortunately, there will be more clouds there as the air mass is unstable enough to touch off towering cumulus clouds and thunderstorms.

So the mountains might not be the best place to go. Maybe up in the rural fields of northern Snohomish or Skagit County? The lights will be along the northern horizon, so make sure you have a clear view to the north. Best viewing time is between midnight and 4 a.m. -- but wait too long and the fog rolls back in tonight.

That said, Northern Lights are very fickle and and ebb and flow quite a bit -- perhaps only being out for 10-20 minutes. So this is a bit of a wild goose chase, but if you luck out, wow.

If you do see the lights -- post below in the comment fields so others can track and see if they're out there. I'll also try and Tweet something (Twitter: @ScottSKOMO) if I am up or hear anything.

If you get any photos of the Northern Lights, please post them to our fancy YouNews submission. If we get enough, I'll make a gallery here for later this week. Happy viewing!!!

Other Data

Aside from relying on others to know if the lights are out, you can Check the "Planetary Kp" Index here. This is only updated every few hours, but I've found in years' past, Seattle needs this to get to about a 7 or better to have a chance at the lights.

Good Morning, Sunshine!

If it seems it's been a while since you've heard about solar flares and Northern Lights, you would be right. The sun is just now coming out of the minimum of its 11 year sunspot cycle.

This cycle's minimum was quieter and stretched longer than sun forecasters had anticipated. In 2008, 73% of the year went sunspot free. In 2009, it was 71%. Spaceweather.com says a typical minimum has about 486 days of a blank sun, but since this minimum began in 2004, we are at 803 days.

That streak is not counting at the moment, as there is one really big sunspot on the sun.

For More Information:

www.spaceweather.com
Space Weather Prediction Page

More Space Weather

What is a Sun Spot?