Northern lights could appear in New York, Chicago and Portland on Wednesday as solar storms bear down on Earth

Northern lights

The northern lights (northern lights) are seen above the sky near Rovaniemi in Lapland, Finland, October 7, 2018.Alexander Kuznetsov/Reuters

  • Plasma bursts from the sun are directed toward Earth and will likely cause a geomagnetic storm.

  • This could bring the northern lights south to New York, Chicago and Portland on Wednesday night.

  • Solar storms can cause disruption to radio, GPS, satellites and other technology.

Bursts of electrically charged plasma from the sun may push the aurora borealis as far as New York, Chicago and Portland, Oregon on Wednesday night.

Solar explosions are called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Named for their origin in the corona, the outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere, a number of them are traveling towards Earth right now. Everyone is expected to arrive around 1am. ET on Thursday, potentially triggering spectacular, highly active auroras as far south as Pennsylvania, Iowa and Oregon, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center, an affiliate of the National Weather Service.

The blue image shows white plasma ejecting from the dark circle where the sun is

A coronal mass ejection (CME) erupting from the sun on August 17, 2022. The sun is blocked so its corona is visible.NOAA/Space Weather Prediction Center

The aurora occurs when Earth’s magnetic field funnels electrically charged solar particles toward the poles, where the particles interact with gases in Earth’s atmosphere. This is what creates brightly colored ribbons.

When CMEs send floods of these particles toward Earth, it causes a geomagnetic storm, which can create particularly spectacular auroras.

earth's magnetic field solar wind aurora poles charged particles

Earth’s magnetic field channels charged particles from the sun toward the poles.NASA Conceptual Imagery Laboratory Goddard/K. Kim

Geomagnetic storms can wreak havoc on power grids and satellites

Solar storms don’t just bring beautiful auroras. The flood of solar particles can also affect power grids, GPS and radio communications, and even affect the orbits of satellites around Earth. Wednesday’s storm isn’t expected to have much of an impact on technology, but past solar storms have caused problems.

coronal mass ejection sun

The sun blows off a coronal mass ejection, February 24, 2015.NASA/GSFC

In 1989, a deluge of particles from the sun knocked out power in Quebec for about nine hours. Two other solar storms knocked out emergency radio communications for a total of 11 hours shortly after Hurricane Irma in 2017. A solar storm may have even knocked out SOS transmissions from the Titanic as it sank on April 14, 1912, but that’s not known for sure.

Bursts of solar activity can also endanger astronauts in Earth orbit by interfering with their spacecraft or knocking out mission control communications.

Aurora Borealis green red over a pine lake

Swirls of green and red appear in an aurora over Whitehorse, Yukon on the night of September 3, 2012.Courtesy of David Cartier, Sr./NASA/Reuters

So studying the source of charged solar particles could help scientists figure out how to protect both astronauts and Earth’s power grid from these unpredictable electrical storms. Two spacecraft currently orbiting the sun are doing just that.

In February 2020, NASA and the European Space Agency launched the Solar Orbiter to capture data about eruptions on the sun’s surface. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is also zooming around the sun. It is designed to measure solar flares as they happen, tracing the flow of material from the sun to Earth in real time.

sun orbiting solar spaceship

An artist’s impression of the Solar Orbiter observing an explosion on the sun.ESA/AOES

The information collected by these spacecraft could one day help scientists predict more geomagnetic storms before they happen.

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