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Posted at 9:40 AM ET, 02/17/2011

Solar Flare 2011: Aurora alert

By Steve Tracton
From NOAA: "Bright and dark regions of the Sun in this solar X-ray image help researchers at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center understand what sort of storms the Sun is sending toward Earth."

Video: Weather Gang's Jason Samenow talks about the Aurora

NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) (part of NOAA's National Weather Service, NWS), has issued an alert for an increase in solar activity to moderate levels with a chance for an isolated major solar flare over the next few days. The consequent solar wind, consisting of charged atomic particles, is expected to intersect the upper atmosphere over polar regions February 17-19, leading to the possibility of brilliant auroras.

Whether or not we will be able to see an aurora locally in the northern sky depends upon several factors. Foremost is the degree of disturbance to the earth's magnetic field and latitude. The brilliance of Aurora's decreases the further south the location. At Washington D.C.'s latitude , it would probably take the magnetic disturbance arising from a major solar flare, now forecast as at least a possibility.

If this should occur you'll need to be in a rural location to avoid the obscuration of city lights. Over the next few days clouds should not interfere with viewing. However, even if all else were favorable, the light of the nearly full moon significantly diminishes chances of seeing an aurora, except within couple hours before moon set in the very early morning hours. Chances of seeing the northern lights are better in New England and the Great Lakes (not coincidentally locations farther north).

Aurora over Alaska. Credit: Paul Alsop via NASA

The last really great aurora visible in the metro region I can recall occurred in July of 2000. Anyone remember a more recent occurrence?

While the appearance of auroras is a plus for night sky watchers as solar activity increases to the expected solar max (increasing sunspots, solar flares, etc), much more consequential is the possibility of solar storm induced geomagnetic disturbances causing radio blackouts, damage to satellites, and, especially, possibly disastrous damage to electrical grids.

Next week, I'll have an additional post addressing these aspects as an update to one I wrote earlier: Do solar storms threaten life as we know it?

Aurora/solar flare/solar storm links:

Auraral activity map (current)
Aurora Borealis, northern lights basic information
Solar flare education (from NASA)

Finally, are you interested in space weather and astronomy, and would you like more posts about this on Capital Weather Gang? Comment below...

By Steve Tracton  | February 17, 2011; 9:40 AM ET
Categories:  Latest, Science, Tracton  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Forecast: A Spring tease over next two days
Next: Drought conditions nearing metro region


Should be interesting.
Please oh great solar entity from which all light & life springs forth - don't burn up our satellites....we really need 'em.

Posted by: FIREDRAGON47 | February 17, 2011 11:00 AM | Report abuse

2012, O NO!!! LOL

Posted by: dannythe357 | February 17, 2011 11:06 AM | Report abuse

It appears the current Solar Cycle 24, after prolonged inactivity, is finally begining to ramp up. This is only the begining of many more events to come.

Posted by: Trout1 | February 17, 2011 11:17 AM | Report abuse

FIREDRAGON47 - good point, we really do need them and their sleep/protect modes can't do but so much in the face of a solar storm...

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | February 17, 2011 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Trout1 - based on what I am reading, probably same as you-- I am making similar conclusions. The lack of activity was remarkable. Only a matter of time before we start to "average up" back toward long-term averages, right?

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | February 17, 2011 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Personally, I'd love to see more commentary here on space weather and such.

Posted by: nsogkgb | February 17, 2011 11:33 AM | Report abuse

nsogkgb - glad you like. Have you any plans to head over to AAAS annual conference at the DC convention center? I hear the space weather contingency is there.

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | February 17, 2011 11:52 AM | Report abuse

I'm very excited to see some space weather commentary on here!! Bring it on! (My opinion is biased however... I work in the solar and space weather field.) You might consider adding to the list of links -- it's a great site.

In response to the article, weren't aurora visible in the area from the 2003 "Halloween" storms? IIRC, the aurora stretched down to some *really* low latitudes from those events.

Posted by: mrwrinkle | February 17, 2011 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Camden-CapitalWeatherGang - Well, it might not hit the averages of the previous few cycles. NASA is predicting a weaker cycle than the immediate previous ones. Still, it will go higher than it is now, peaking in 2013. We only hit a sunspot count of a hundred a few days ago, and that has already dropped back down. In Cycle 23, there were months on end with sunspot counts in the high 100’s – high 200’s. So, this should continue to build, even if it doesn’t hit the peaks of Cycle 23. As a ham operator, I certainly hope so.

Posted by: Trout1 | February 17, 2011 12:01 PM | Report abuse

There is a very good space weather site I consult from time to time.

There was an extremely strong solar storm, probably a coronal mass ejection [CME] which disrupted telegraph transmissions in 1857 or 1858, and which today might have "fried" all our power grids, satellites, communications, computers, GPS etc. I'm sure that psychics, astrologers, soothsayers, apocalyptics etc. may have warned of dire times ahead for the emerging nation [this at a time when the slavery debate was convulsing the United States--as it was, the Civil War broke out within three years!!!].

Posted by: Bombo47jea | February 17, 2011 12:04 PM | Report abuse

The last truly big Southern California earthquake on the San Andreas Fault also occurred in 1857. Fortunately the Los Angeles area was lightly populated at the time, as were Memphis and St. Louis at the time of the great New Madrid/Reelfoot Lake earthquakes of 1811/1812. Similar earthquakes today in both regions would be major economic disasters.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | February 17, 2011 12:14 PM | Report abuse

I've seen aurora 2x in CT, both in 2003 I believe.. one was near Halloween which was probably the biggest flare of recent? It's cool stuff but seems like an extremely low probability event this far south.

Posted by: Ian-CapitalWeatherGang | February 17, 2011 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Tracon,

30 October 2003 was the most spectacular display of northern lights in the Washington D.C. area triggered by a X17.2 flare on the 28th. Brilliant, brilliant reds shortly after sunset across the northern sky and lasting for an hour at least. My daughter and I were amazed. I was stunned the next day to find that there was _nothing_ in the Washington Post about it. There were others events in the following weeks but paled in comparison to the 28th. I suspect that if CME triggered by the flare on the 28th arrived a day later, it would have made the newspapers.

Posted by: klasskalmen | February 17, 2011 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Wonderful! My partner and I find it much more electrifying during periods of high solar activity! He and I can't wait!

Posted by: WayneFamous | February 17, 2011 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Bombo, the extremely strong solar disturbance you refer to was in 1859. Telegraph operators were knocked off their chairs and the paper teletype caught fire (see my earlier post linked above).

Ever since that post I've been trying to wave the red flag at various meetings and forums. Not until recently have people in responsible positions taken serious notice, including at those at FEMA, the agency presumably tasked to prepare for the consequences of a major hit. And only recently has there been meaningful plan/action to protect the nations power grid - probably too late to do much over the next few years as the Solar cycle heads toward the next maximum expected in 20012-2013 - think about not having electricity for several months to years.

More on this in post next week.

BTW: I'd not give much credence to any predictions on the strength of the the coming solar max.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | February 17, 2011 12:57 PM | Report abuse


There was a mean sunspot group moving across the sun in mid/late October 2003. It generated a X17.2 flare (ranked 3rd) on the 28th and then a week later, just as that group rotated off the sun's limb and out of view from Earth, it blasted out a X28+ flare which is the strongest measured flare ever. I shudder to think if that occurred while it was facing Earth, there would be lots of orbiting junk and fried power grids down here.

Posted by: klasskalmen | February 17, 2011 12:58 PM | Report abuse

For the best information - look here:

I did note some minor transmission issues with our cable yesterday. Slight loss of signal at times, but nothing spectacular.

Solar activity is expected to peak in 2013. As the diagram shows - depending upon where the flare is, and the orientation of Earth at the time of "impact", a solar flare will not hit ALL of the earth. The early warning system is designed to coordinate observed events with those who would be affected. This should help in minimizing any effect of a solar flare or CME. With warning, and proper preparation, outages could be minimized. is NOT a valid NASA/NOAA website. The man can't even spell "martial law" correctly. He agrees with the 2012 hoaxers.

My advice - be prepared as if there were a hurricane.

Posted by: MichelleKinPA | February 17, 2011 1:10 PM | Report abuse

thanks for the link. It's neat!

Posted by: MichelleKinPA | February 17, 2011 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this article...

For those that have seen aurora in our area, how far above the northern horizon did they extend?

Posted by: spgass1 | February 17, 2011 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Well it's now begun.

Posted by: Desertdiva1 | February 17, 2011 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Superintendent Chalmers:
Yes, I should be— Good lord, what is happening in there?

Seymour Skinner:
Aurora Borealis?

Superintendent Chalmers:
Aurora Borealis?!
At this time of year?!
At this time of day?!
In this part of the country?!
Localized entirely within your kitchen?!

Seymour Skinner:

(This inane nineties pop culture reference was brought to you by errant solar winds.)

The most extraordinarily sublime aurora borealis display I've ever witnessed occurred in Reykjavik, Iceland sometime during the mid-to-late 1980s. I would love to see AB again one day.

Posted by: FedUpInMoCo | February 17, 2011 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Definitely good to see solar weather covered.

Been fascinated by Carrington Effect & related solar physics ever since friends living in Canada experienced the power shutdown back around 89 or so. Keep hearing that "there will be (enough advance warning) to shut down key components of the power grid and avoid major disruption" but not sure people really realize the possible impacts.

Will be interesting to see what we may bet in the next couple of years.

Posted by: icyone | February 17, 2011 1:47 PM | Report abuse

klasskalman, thanks for the info. I remember the 2003 event mainly because I was at school and everyone was going nuts over it, we all rushed out toward the dark part of campus to watch. I did not have a camera on me for it sadly. I thought the second time I saw it was 2003, but apparently it was 2005 (I did get a photo that time).

Posted by: Ian-CapitalWeatherGang | February 17, 2011 2:11 PM | Report abuse

this is cool. it be like we the penguins frum happy feet. i wuold love to sea the aururoa in the sky. peepel forgit how to enjoy speshel things in life nowdays. the son is god and is just shoeing us the beeuty of nachure. be positiv, stay happy with everything erth has to ofer.

Posted by: vmxdirect | February 17, 2011 2:11 PM | Report abuse

this is cool. it be like we the penguins frum happy feet. i wuold love to sea the aururoa in the sky. peepel forgit how to enjoy speshel things in life nowdays. the son is god and is just shoeing us the beeuty of nachure. be positiv, stay happy with everything erth has to ofer.

Posted by: vmxdirect | February 17, 2011 2:15 PM | Report abuse


IIRC, on 30th October 2003 from my perspective, the 'curtains' or streamers of the display formed/moved almost overhead here in the Wash D.C. area. At higher elevations in the sky it was more transient--"comes and goes". But low in the northern horizon, it was pretty solid red for long periods of time. I did check to see if there were any aurora in the southern portion of the sky but due to urban glow, some thin cirrus, and twilight, it was hard to tell.

Posted by: klasskalmen | February 17, 2011 2:15 PM | Report abuse

i couldn't see your pic. it said i had to sign in or register. any other way to share it?

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | February 17, 2011 2:34 PM | Report abuse

hy ian,

i dindt post a pichure up. just rote stuf. i am not familyer on how to ad my pichure on comments. it be too fun if i did no how too thoe. i wantid too show how the happy feet auruora pichure look the same too everywon. dont trip thoe, i will trie an call the website peepel and sea if they can make this comments likes facebook or myspace. hopfully i can makes an efeckt on the cumpnees way of giving the pubic aksess do things like facebook on thare website.

Posted by: vmxdirect | February 17, 2011 2:59 PM | Report abuse


Thanks for that info. I was in DC that day (23 October 2003) but don't recall ever hearing anything about it, let alone see it. I rember seeing aurora when a kid in the 50's when living near Boston, but didn't know then what I was looking at. The most memorable aurora for me was a sighting in ALaska, I think it was March 2003.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | February 17, 2011 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Dear capital weather gang,

My name is Ari and I am really interested in weather and please post more weather space articles up on your blog. I really appreciate your weather blog as I think you guys are the best forecasters for the DC area. Thank you for doing a great job and giving us great weather forecasts

Posted by: mimidarmstadter | February 17, 2011 3:09 PM | Report abuse

yes it is beeutyful site to sea. i wish i was mumbles. beeutiful kolors in the sky like leonardo davichy paintings. when i wuz a kid i always likt seaing shoting stars and stuf. i wuz always looking up in the ski. my mom wud say its like my nek wuz brokin all the time. and i shud be a asstronot cuz i wuz always liking owter spase. she wud call me marvin marshin like the carton. beecuz i was so in too the solor sistim.

Posted by: vmxdirect | February 17, 2011 4:14 PM | Report abuse

I would love to see more spaceweather info on here. I've been subscribed to spaceweather alerts for over 10 years and I have the NASA heliophysics app on my iPhone. I read about this a couple of days ago but I wasn't sure how strong "strong" was. But I know reading all of the articles it hasn't been very active. Hopefully going up to see my parents in NE PA this weekend I might have a better chance of seeing them

Posted by: paul-Sterling | February 17, 2011 4:20 PM | Report abuse


I remember seeing some special a while back, I don't remember what channel it was on or what the deal was but it had to do with an extremely strong solar flare blowing out all these transformers that apparently are only made a couple per year. The cause was the power companies not wanting to take a mandatory power outage to shut them down and protect them and took the chance of keeping them up. I can see that happening if a strong enough flare occurs

Posted by: paul-Sterling | February 17, 2011 4:48 PM | Report abuse

I thought first you were refering to a very good Discovey channel program on the nature and overdramatic depiction of the dangers from soa;r storms.

But, what you seem to be remembering was a low-budget one star Sci Fi flick - can't remember name - where a power company refused for some notorious reason to shut down not withstanding the dire consequences that could result. But like so many of this genere, the day was saved by famous scientsit, whose warnings nobody beleived at first, and his good looking girl friend. I'm hazy on the actual details, though

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | February 17, 2011 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Steve, HA. Ok I do remember that now. It was a Discovery channel thing (I was going to say one of those Weather channel specials) that was talking about it because I remember the overdramatic animations and descriptions. I think I might have melded that with one of the infamous SciFi "movies" that shows the end of the world or something like that.

Posted by: paul-Sterling | February 17, 2011 6:07 PM | Report abuse

I do find news on solar activity helpful. As a total amateur, I have occasionally thought I saw something going on, and would have been happy to have a place to check out if I was really seeing auroras or not.

I remember the beautiful display in October 2003--it was fairly high overhead in Olney, including reds and greens. We also used to see them in Montana fairly often during the late 1970s/early 1980s.

Posted by: krrolney | February 17, 2011 6:19 PM | Report abuse

It will probably fry Sarah Palin's last remaining brain cell.

Posted by: thomasmc1957 | February 17, 2011 7:57 PM | Report abuse

Yes! Please report more on this stuff! Love it!

Posted by: rebma | February 17, 2011 8:21 PM | Report abuse

A colleague of mine, Eric Gallant, wrote a white paper 2 years ago about how these predicted events pose potential threat to mission critical facilities and data centers. You might find it interesting and particularly relevant.

Here it is: The Threat of Space Weather to Mission Critical Facilities

Posted by: asmith4 | February 18, 2011 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Thanks, asmith4: yes, very interesting and relevant. I'd like to get in touch with Eric. If you can, please send his contact info to:

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | February 18, 2011 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Please include more about space weather at CWG. There are many professionals in the WDC region who are interested in the reliability of U.S. satellites - and the power grid. I'm an amateur radio operator (HAM) - solar flares may cause dramatic changes in radio propagation. I recall seeing the AB while I was in Buffalo, NY as a graduate student in 1976. It was very late at night. I pulled out my Ensolite pad and one of the first portable stereo cassette players with some good headphones. I listened to Holst's "The Planets" while lying on my back in a dark location, watching the slowly changing subtly colored patterns in the sky.

Posted by: Dr_Gene_Nelson | February 18, 2011 5:56 PM | Report abuse

I live in Iceland and i took a few photos of the Aurora borealis last night .
you can see them here

Posted by: doriice | February 19, 2011 10:45 AM | Report abuse

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