As you read this, a blast wave of trillions of energetic particles is bearing down on us, with impact expected in just hours. The resulting auroras will fill the skies in many Northern areas with shimmering green, red and blue. If you’ve never seen auroras, this could be your chance! Ready? **Update** – Ka-Boom, a major hit – see update at bottom of post!
Naturalists of any religion have, I think, a special connection to our world. As the only world we have- which are are part of, we cherish it and revel in it, savoring the gifts this Universe has to offer, during this one brief life we know we have.
And what a month it has been for reveling in the majesty of our Universe! Just a few weeks ago many of us experienced totality for the first time, with the first total eclipse to hit the United States in 38 years – and now, our star has unleashed its biggest solar flare in over a decade! What a joy to see these lights dancing overhead, and to be able to amplify their glory by understanding how they form – all the many factors that come together to allow me to feel their light in my brain! Here’s another chance for one of the spiritual experiences that help connect us to our Universe, enriching our lives and fueling our spiritualities!
In short, auroras are more likely tonight and tomorrow night than they have been for nearly all days since 2005, and it could be years before odds are this good again.
It’s virtually certain that at least some places will get auroras in the next few days. If you can see clear, dark skies at a latitude above around 45 degrees, consider going out. You can also sign up for getting a free, immediate email notification if auroras appear near you. There are plenty of details (and caveats) below – but that’s all you need to know to see them. I’ve seen incredible auroras twice, and pretty darn cool auroras probably a dozen times. I won’t take the time now to describe all of them, but the shimmering, waving sheets and streamers across the sky are, like totality, transformative.
Where to start? First of all, we can’t know for sure what will happen – only what the probabilities are. Solar flares very often lead to auroras, and this scales with the strength of the flare (assuming it is aimed at our planet, which this one is). The many different stages/parts of the blast are complex, but produce a Coronal Mass Ejection
(CME), which races outward at millions of miles an hour, and consists of many different types of energetic particles that take different lengths of time to get here. We can see the blast in regular light, which takes only 8 minutes to get here, but most of the effects take anywhere from 1 to 3 days (because our Sun is 93 million miles away), and sometimes contain enough dispersed material (sometimes augmented by additional explosions) to last several days. When these energetic particles slam into the earth, they are mostly deflected by the magetnosphere, and reach farther toward the Earth’s surface along the magnetic poles, where the magnetic field lines are vertical instead of being horizontal. There’s more to it, but this is the basic reason why we get Northern lights (Aurora Borealis) and Southern lights (Aurora Australis). The main blast happened yesterday, so here it comes! Interestingly, the instrument that detects this kind of activity also shows the corona, which can be seen to still have roughly the same shape it did when we saw it during totality on August 21!
This blast is the largest since 2005, and because we are entering the middle of the low activity part of the solar cycle, it could be several years before another blast like it. However, once we get to 2022, it’s likely that another solar flare this big or bigger between 2022 and 2024. The solar activity cycle is roughly 11 years long, and the current cycle (cycle number 24) peaked around 2013 (see graph showing the biggest 30 solar flares since instruments were available in 1976). The high activity times are marked with light blue. The most recent cycle (#24) was weaker than usual (so I’ve used lighter shading for it), and didn’t produce many strong flares – hence the long gap from the last big flare until now, plus, we are already past most of the activity from cycle #24, going into the quiet time between cycles. This makes today’s CME even more of a speical gift – because, unsurprisingly, big flares are more likely during the part of the solar cycle with the most activity. Though of course some happen at other times too. Notice especially the biggest explosion, which happened around Samhain, 2003. It was actually a cluster of several flares, which were strong enough to knock out electrical grids in some areas, and produce auroras visible as far south as Texas and Florida!
In addition to simply getting outside at night (and/or using the free, automatic notification linked to above), you can also check the auroral activity using the auroral oval map at spaceweather.com, and reading the updates there. Also, the map for the Southern hemisphere can also be seen at spaceweather.com, just click on “New Zealand”.
If this one fizzles, or if you aren’t in a good area for viewing, or clouds intervene (as they likely will here in Michigan), the graph above suggests that a flares as powerful as this will likely come again by 2025, when the next solar cycle (#25) is likely to peak. Either way, I hope you get to experience this wonderful part of our Earth (and Universe!) centered spirituality – and, if possible, to share it with kids, who will build the world of tomorrow.
The blast hit at 23:00 UT (9 pm EDT), compressing the magnetosphere and sparking a huge auroral display, visible as far south as Arkansas! Spaceweather writes:
CME IMPACT SPARKS AURORAS, STOPS TRAFFIC: The debris from Wednesday’s monster X9-class solar flare reached Earth last night–and its impact was everything forecasters expected. A severe G4-class geomagnetic storm commenced, sparking auroras over Scandinavia so bright they actually stopped traffic. ….. GEOMAGNETIC STORM UPDATE–IT’S BACK: Geomagnetic activity has intensified again as Earth passes through a region of strong magnetic fields in the wake of the CME that arrived last night. NOAA magnetometers are reporting renewed episodes of strong G3-class and severe G4-class storming on Sept. 8th. High-latitude sky watchers should remain alert for auroras. Free: Aurora Alerts
Check out all the great pictures from this storm, here!
The Author: Jon Cleland Host
Starstuff, Contemplating: We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.