ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Well, after all this talk over the past few days about potentially seeing the northern lights this week a CME (coronal mass ejection) finally hit Earth’s magnetic field this Friday afternoon. Based on the strength of this CME a minor G1 or G2 geomagnetic storm will be possible in the next few hours.
In other words, a series of “sun burps” are currently being projected toward earth. Sounds weird right? Our sun occasionally releases these solar burps or flares that are essentially chunks of energy that fly out into space. Sometimes this energy doesn’t run into anything important. Sometimes it runs into Earth. This is one of those times, which means that based on the strength of this CME a minor G1 or G2 geomagnetic storm will be possible in the next few hours, and a very small chance we get to (faintly) see the Northern Lights.
How does it work?
When these flares reach Earth’s magnetic field, vivid auroras can dance across the poles. These geomagnetic storms, as we call them, are rated on a scale from 1-5 based on potency and subsequent impacts to Earth. The bigger the number, the more intense the storm. In terms of auroras, the bigger the storm, the farther south auroras will be able to be seen.
What does that mean for us?
A G2-class aurora is typically borderline to see across western New York, but G3 forecasts can drive auroras as far south as the New York/Pennsylvania border. Given the chaotic nature space weather forecasts can have, it’s not entirely impossible that additional strengthening into a G3 storm occurs and allows us a better chance at viewing the aurora.
In this case the best shot at getting a glimpse of the often spectacular space show is to look far and low out on the horizon. You’ll need zero cloud cover and as little light pollution as possible. Going up to Lake Ontario may be your best bet, and don’t forget your camera! Taking a photo of the sky using a long exposure can help portray a more vibrant image than what’s seen with the naked eye.
While having this happen during broad daylight isn’t ideal for viewing, it’s still very possible the solar storm reaches Earth, strengthens a bit and lingers by the time nighttime rolls around.
Why should I care?
Auroras visible in western New York are not everyday occurrences, but they do happen. Our ability to see them locally hinges on two factors. 1) A geomagnetic storm of sufficient intensity (normally at least a G3 rating) and 2) A sky overhead that isn’t full of clouds.
As a fellow lover of all things space, this isn’t my first rodeo. Predicting the weather is hard. Predicting the timing and intensity of these sun burps is harder. I don’t envy the brilliant minds tasked with predicting this stuff.
That said, the complexity results in an inherent element of the unknown. I’ve seen many G2+ predictions fail to live up to the hype. Conversely, I’ve seen a few surprise storms that came out of nowhere. My point is, predictions are just that…predictions. There is no telling exactly when and how strong/southward these auroras will get. When/if the impact happens, we’ll know pretty quick what we’re working with. But if that G2 upgrades to a G3, history tells us auroras can dance across western New York.
So let’s say it happens. Auroras tend to favor local midnight into the wee hours of the morning. While theoretically visible at our latitude, they will almost certainly not appear directly overhead. Rather, you’ll have to have a clean view looking northward to see them. Focus less on what is directly overhead, but what the sky will look like toward the northern horizon.
Even though the odds are slim they’re certainly not zero. You may just get lucky this time around. Good luck!