Will you see the lights tonight?

By Phil Plait | January 24, 2012 11:45 am

The solar storm that erupted from the Sun yesterday reached the Earth today at about 15:00 UTC (10:00 a.m. Eastern US time). The wave of subatomic particles has been impacting the Earth’s magnetic field, and we’re starting to see some auroral activity:

Isn’t that lovely? That was taken at 18:00 UTC today from a webcam in Abisko, Sweden. Can you see the handle of the Big Dipper right below the green curtain? [More aurora webcam sites are listed below.]

The two biggest questions I’m getting on Twitter and Google+ are 1) is there any danger to this storm, and b) can I see the aurora from [my location]?

First, no, we’re not in any danger from this event. Even though it sounds terrifying — an explosion the equivalent of billions of nuclear weapons launching hundreds of millions of tons of subatomic particles Earthward at speeds of million of kilometers per hour! — we’re pretty well protected down here on the surface. The Earth’s magnetic field catches the particles, and most of those get dumped harmlessly in our upper atmosphere. That can create the aurora displays, but won’t dose everyone with radiation and give them superpowers.

Sorry. [UPDATE (19:00 UTC): a ground current surge was reported in Sweden, but so far that’s the only physical impact I’ve heard of.]

But the aurorae are pretty cool, and that brings us to the second question. The answer depends on where you are, and when it’s dark out. As I write this, activity is on the rise. Here are some live webcams for aurorae, some of which are showing spectacular activity! Note they only show views when it’s nighttime locally:


Fairbanks, Alaska

Yellowknife, Canada

Tromso, Norway

As for seeing them wherever you are, that’s tough to say. The Geophysical Institute has a map showing predicted activity for North America, for example, and NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has a continuously updated map showing auroral activity for both hemispheres. Universe Today has a guide on how to see the aurorae, and Astronomy magazine has a discussion of aurorae, too.

I’m getting conflicting info on potential aurorae tonight; the webcams in Scandinavia listed above are showing strong (and gorgeous) activity, but the prediction for Canada and the US appear moderate at best. But don’t let that discourage you! If you have clear skies, go outside once it’s good and dark and take a look. Even if there’s no aurora, you can see Venus and the thin crescent Moon to the west right after sunset, and that’s always a plus. And if things perk up, you might get a nice light show to the north, too!

Related posts:

The Sun aims a storm right at Earth: expect aurorae tonight!
Time lapse: The Aurora
JAW DROPPING Space Station time lapse!
Stunning Finnish aurora time lapse

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (27)

  1. Peptron

    Why are you tormenting me?

    Where I live is usually a very good spot to see aurora, but it will be completely overcast…

  2. Chris

    Kind of sad that people are so scientifically illiterate that they think pretty standard CME will hurt them.

  3. chief

    Aww Shoot. I wanted to get a superpower or two. Seeing into the Infrared would be one I’d pick.

    I did work with IBM doing the Y2K computer upgrades, and had the opportunity to go up to Flin Flon and the aurora were quite the site. ūüėČ

  4. What you see in that north-Swedish screenshot is *always* there: this is the typical green aurora you see almost every clear night in these geomagnetic latitudes, and it has nothing at all to do with the CME impact earlier today. Case in point are these impressions from northern Norway from last November when the geomagnetic activity was low all the time. To find out whether something extraordinary is going on aurora-wise one has to track webcams – and magnetometer data – much further south, way outside the normal auroral oval. If they act up, a geomagnetic storm is really under way.

  5. No superpowers? But what am I going to do with this Aurora-Man costume now? Sure, the power to produce a pretty light show doesn’t seem like a good fit for crime fighting, but I could have rented myself out for parties!

    Oh well, maybe I’ll get to see some pretty lights tonight.

  6. Crux Australis

    I don’t see Palmerston North, New Zealand on that list. :(

  7. You are assuming I do not already have super powers from a previous incident!

  8. Joanne

    I live in the right area (the map shows green over my city), but we will have clouds until late this evening according to environment canada… I will still go out and look!!

  9. IanR

    We’re all doomed! Run!

  10. ozprof

    It figures……. After a couple of weeks of clear skies, it is totally overcast here tonight! mumble.. mumble…mumble……. stomp stomp stomp….. SLAM!

  11. Is this what Ace of Base meant when they “saw the light”? :p

  12. rob

    yeah. overcast here tonight too. snow predicted. grrrr. no biggy though. i have seen the aurora before.

    haven’t seen a comet*. or supernova.

    *with the naked eye and a looooooong tail like the last two. curses southern hemisphere!11!!!1!

  13. DennyMo

    Larian, actually Ace of Base saw the sign, not the light.

    The maps show us on the extreme southern edge for viewing, here’s hoping the skies clear like they’re supposed to this evening!

  14. Matthew Ota

    I will take a gander tonight, but I am pretty far top the South in Los Angeles.

  15. Clwaller

    If we were to see the pretty lights down here in central Texas (clouds or no clouds), that would some mighty CME. Probably do some damage. In the past it had to be X or greater to be seen in the Panhandle.

  16. Boomer

    Phil, is it true that the aurorae do not make an audible sound? Because I swear I heard a crackling noise coming from them on multiple occasions.

  17. Ryan H

    A friend of mine has reported seeing aurora in Greenville, SC tonight under very dark sky conditions. Take that for what you will. I went out looking a little further South in Charleston, SC (well, just northwest of Charleston) and didn’t see anything, but I have very poor viewing conditions especially when looking toward the horizon.

  18. Robert

    It’s supposed to be visible near the horizon from Chicago, but it’s too cloudy to see anything but the city lights. I’ve never seen aurorae, and I really hope I get to one of these days.

  19. Sharath

    Will I be able to witness the phenomenon? I live in India and its gonna be around 8.30pm , 25-Jan here when its 10am in eastern US.

  20. Is it even possible to ever see the aurora in a city as light polluted as, say, Chicago?

  21. Aaron

    No lights here tonight, unfortunately — it’s too cloudy. Still, I remember seeing a green CME aurora some years back, which seemed to cover the whole sky.

  22. Lorne Black

    Bj√łrn J√łrgensen has some beautiful shots from Norway at http://spaceweather.com/aurora/gallery_01jan12_page2.htm

  23. Robert

    Gonzo, maybe if you were looking over the lake, but otherwise you probably wouldn’t see it all that well if it were even visible at all. On any really clear night, I’m lucky if I can make out even a handful of stars.

    Being able to see the stars is the one thing I miss about living in a small town.

  24. I’ve created a time lapse video from the images captured past night from here: http://www.virtualtromso.no/en/northern-lights/138-live-northern-lights-activity-and-forecast.html between 9:47 PM and 2:05 AM
    You can download the file here: http://f.gethopper.com/xCEwyT6fDAHqecTpM1nWTDaMZ1TG/Tromso_all-sky_camera.mp4

  25. Hi Phil,

    there is a nice video from aurora watchers in lappland from the night january 24th!

    Bad Lippspringe, Germany


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