March 18, 2015
NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center is THE place to go for forecasting of likely northern lights activity. Yesterday they held a press conference regarding the G4 storm (on a scale of 1-5) that was caused by two magnetic eruptions on March 15 that combined to form a single wave producing the biggest storm so far of Cycle 24.
Their page on Geomagnetic Storms explains:
A geomagnetic storm is a major disturbance of Earth’s magnetosphere that occurs when there is a very efficient exchange of energy from the solar wind into the space environment surrounding Earth. These storms result from variations in the solar wind that produces major changes in the currents, plasmas, and fields in Earth’s magnetosphere. The solar wind conditions that are effective for creating geomagnetic storms are sustained (for several to many hours) periods of high-speed solar wind, and most importantly, a southward directed solar wind magnetic field (opposite the direction of Earth’s field) at the dayside of the magnetosphere. This condition is effective for transferring energy from the solar wind into Earth’s magnetosphere.
The largest storms that result from these conditions are associated with solar coronal mass ejections (CMEs) where a billion tons or so of plasma from the sun, with its embedded magnetic field, arrives at Earth. CMEs typically take several days to arrive at Earth, but have been observed, for some of the most intense storms, to arrive in as short as 18 hours. Another solar wind disturbance that creates conditions favorable to geomagnetic storms is a high-speed solar wind stream (HSS). HSSs plow into the slower solar wind in front and create co-rotating interaction regions, or CIRs. These regions are often related to geomagnetic storms that while less intense than CME storms, often can deposit more energy in Earth’s magnetosphere over a longer interval.
Storms also result in intense currents in the magnetosphere, changes in the radiation belts, and changes in the ionosphere, including heating the ionosphere and upper atmosphere region called the thermosphere. In space, a ring of westward current around Earth produces magnetic disturbances on the ground. A measure of this current, the disturbance storm time (Dst) index, has been used historically to characterize the size of a geomagnetic storm. In addition, there are currents produced in the magnetosphere that follow the magnetic field, called field-aligned currents, and these connect to intense currents in the auroral ionosphere. These auroral currents, called the auroral electrojets, also produce large magnetic disturbances. Together, all of these currents, and the magnetic deviations they produce on the ground, are used to generate a planetary geomagnetic disturbance index called Kp. This index is the basis for one of the three NOAA Space Weather Scales, the Geomagnetic Storm, or G-Scale, that is used to describe space weather that can disrupt systems on Earth.
During storms, the currents in the ionosphere, as well as the energetic particles that precipitate into the ionosphere add energy in the form of heat that can increase the density and distribution of density in the upper atmosphere, causing extra drag on satellites in low-earth orbit. The local heating also creates strong horizontal variations in the in the ionospheric density that can modify the path of radio signals and create errors in the positioning information provided by GPS. While the storms create beautiful aurora, they also can disrupt navigation systems such as the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) and create harmful geomagnetic induced currents (GICs) in the power grid and pipelines.
More northern lights photos & info on Michigan in Pictures.
March 17, 2015
Shawn of Lake Superior Photo writes:
Some great auroras this morning, but it was very difficult to photograph, brutal wind- it’s still out and still dark, go look north
Click to view the photo background bigtacular after you go out and check!!
Call it the luck of the Irish for early risers! Stay safe and happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone.
March 13, 2015
Intense colors from the rare Great Aurora painted the skies around the world in vivid shapes that moved like legendary dragons. Ghostly celestial armies battled from sunset to midnight. Newspapers that reported this event considered the aurora, itself, to be the most newsworthy aspect of the storm. Seen as far south as Florida and Cuba, the vast majority of people in the Northern Hemisphere had never seen such a spectacle.
~Dr. Sten Odenwald
I like to revisit this March 13, 1989 incident documented by Dr. Odenwald in A Conflagration of Storms. In addition to being an amazing display of the aurora borealis, this solar storm took down Quebec’s power network and very nearly much more:
In many ways, the Quebec blackout was a sanitized calamity. It was wrapped in a diversion of beautiful colors, and affected a distant population mostly while they slept. There were no houses torn asunder, or streets flooded in the manner of a hurricane or tornado. There was no dramatic footage of waves crashing against the beach. There were no cyclonic whirlwinds cutting a swath of destruction through Kansas trailer parks. The calamity passed without mention in the major metropolitan newspapers, yet six million people were affected as they woke to find no electricity to see them through a cold Quebec wintry night. Engineers from the major North American power companies were not so blasé about what some would later conclude, could easily have escalated into a $6 billion catastrophe affecting most U.S. East Coast cities. All that prevented 50 million more people in the U.S. from joining their Canadian friends in the dark were a dozen or so heroic capacitors on the Allegheny Power Network.
The Media seemed to have missed one of the most human impacts of the beautiful aurora they so meticulously described in article after article. Today the March 1989 ‘Quebec Blackout’ has reached legendary stature, at least among electrical engineers and space scientists, as an example of how solar storms can adversely affect us. It has even begun to appear in science textbooks. Fortunately, storms as powerful as this really are rather rare. It takes quite a solar wallop to cause anything like the conditions leading up to a Quebec-style blackout. When might we expect the next one to happen? About once every ten years or so, but the exact time is largely a game of chance.
Call it the ultimate Friday the 13th! The whole book The 23rd Cycle:Learning to live with a stormy star is available online, and you can read a lot more from Dr. Odenwald at his website, The Astronomy Cafe or at facebook.com/AstronomyCafe.
A whole lot more northern lights on Michigan in Pictures!
PS: Keep an eye on solar storminess and get heads up notifications when the northern lights might be visible at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.
December 10, 2014
Isle Royale starbreeze, photo by Shawn Malone/Lake Superior Photo
If you’re a watcher of the northern lights or want to be, NOAA’s Space Weather Projection Center at spaceweather.gov is a resource you should be aware of. It’s packed full of all kinds of data on what’s happening on the sun and how that impacts us here on earth.
Yesterday they updated to an all-new site that I encourage you to check out. The coolest things I found so far are the Space Weather Enthusiast Dashboard and the 30 minute aurora forecast, a seriously awesome visualization of aurora potential. Be sure to subscribe to their space weather alerts for tips on when the aurora borealis might be visible!
Shawn says that the stars were screaming that night at Isle Royale National Park. View her photo bigger on the Lake Superior Photo Facebook, and if you like you can purchase the photo right here. And speaking of northern lights, be sure to click for a time-lapse of the aurora over Isle Royale with a very cool soundtrack she recorded of loons on the island.
February 19, 2014
NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center reported this morning:
Earth is currently under the influence of a coronal mass ejection (CME) and G2 (Moderate) geomagnetic storming has been observed. This is likely the result of what was expected to be a near miss from an event originally observed on the 14th. This CME has a fairly well-organized magnetic field structure so continued G1 (Minor) to G2 (Moderate) storming is certainly possible. Stay tuned for updates as this event unfolds.
The Aurora Borealis was out last night, and I thought it a good time to share Shawn Malone’s Insider Secrets for Northern Lights that she wrote for the Pure Michigan Blog a couple of months ago:
Michigan has a lot of things going for it when it comes to northern lights viewing, the most important being 1). latitude and 2). relatively low light pollution in many areas. Northern Michigan sits in a great location latitude-wise, as the auroral oval dips further south on nights of stronger auroral activity. The Upper Peninsula is blessed with hundreds of miles of shoreline along the south shore of Lake Superior, which provides some of the best northern lights viewing in the lower 48 due to the very dark night skies. When looking north over Lake Superior, one can see right down to the horizon and take in a 180 degree unobstructed view of the night sky. Getting to a location without the obstruction of a treeline or hills is important at our latitude, as many times an auroral display will sit very low on the horizon. Having a dark night sky with little light pollution is necessary when looking for the northern lights, as the light of the aurora is equal to the brightness of starlight.
People often ask me how I’ve been able to see so many northern lights displays over the years and a lot of it has to do with what I mentioned above. I live in Marquette, Michigan which sits centered on the south shore of Lake Superior, and when looking north there’s nothing but lake for hundreds of miles. Marquette and locations nearby have many areas along the lakeshore still publicly accessible, allowing for the opportunity to view the aurora right from the shoreline.
If you’ve never seen the northern lights and want to maximize your opportunity to do so, learn and pay attention to sunspot activity, as that’s what drives the northern lights.
Read on for tips on where to catch these lights, some more photos from Shawn and her incredible, Smithsonian award-winning video Radiance.
Michigan in Pictures has a TON of Northern Lights information & photos that includes the science and stories of this incredible phenomenon.
December 14, 2013
Today’s post might win the 2013 Incomprehensible Garbledegook Award…
Almost all of the photos on Michigan in Pictures are those added to the Absolute Michigan pool on the excellent photo sharing site Flickr, with occasional photo posted to the Michigan in Pictures Facebook mixed in. While that’s very convenient for me, there’s a whole lot of great photos on Twitter and Instagram too.
If you’re interested in sharing your photos and aren’t into Flickr, please feel free to use the “michpics” hash tag: #michpics on Twitter and #michpics on Instagram. If your photo is in some other place, you can tweet it with that hash tag.
Thanks everyone for sharing and I hope you get a chance to enjoy some of Michigan’s beauty this weekend!
Jiqing Fan took some amazing photos this fall. View his shot from Brockaway Mountain on the Keweenaw Peninsula bigger and see more in his slideshow. Past features of Jiqing Fan on Michigan in Pictures.
November 14, 2013
This EarthSky article on the Pleiades gives some great lore and viewing tips and says that:
In our Northern Hemispheres skies, the Pleiades cluster is associated with the winter season. It’s easy to imagine this misty patch of icy-blue suns as hoarfrost clinging to the dome of night. Frosty November is often called the month of the Pleiades, because it’s at this time that the Pleiades shine from dusk until dawn. But you can see the Pleiades cluster in the evening sky well into April.
November is also the month of the Aurora, delivering some of the best northern lights action. Kevin took this photo during one of the best solar storms in the last several decades on November 10, 2004. He wrote the following (in part) after viewing these lights:
It was a Dark and (Solar) Stormy Night. Stormy with shafts and rays of light streaming from the heavens.
We all knew there was a chance of another auroral display tonight. We were waiting. And then around 10:30pm or so (from Grand Rapids), the wait was over. This time I went out with my brother, taking back roads and such until we finally found a great spot in northeastern Kent County. We ended up off Old Belding Rd on Lessiter Rd, which is on the way to the Grattan Raceway.
The road faced north, so we were shooting right down the middle of it. There were some clouds around to the north, but nothing too bothersome. Most of the action was to the northeast, with not much seen in the way of color except green, and an occasional red and blue. There were curtains, rays, shafts, and some really good pulsing going on.
I of course used my 35mm film camera, and my brother had his Canon Digital SLR. I was a tad pickier this time, and only shot 3 rolls by the time 1:30 rolled around, and it started to wane. Also, we were getting some clouds coming in, so we bailed.
On the way back to civilization, I noticed it was picking up again … I finally found a place a few miles down the road with a good northern horizon, and set up the camera again.
Oh… My… God. The curtains! The pulsing rays!! The pulsing shafts of light as they flickered up the magnetic lines of force to the corona. I was seeing pulsating shafts from the south!! All of them converging near Orion, forming another spectacular corona. I shot, moved the camera, and shot again. Always looking for the best display, and ever mindful to watch for composition (at least I was keeping my photographers’ hat on during this), I shot frame after frame. At one point I was going to leave, as it was dying again. But as I put my camera in the car, it flared up to the point I HAD to get set up again; another roll of film in the camera. I finally stopped around 3:00, as it was dying down, and also because I knew if I didn’t force myself, I’d shoot until I ran out of film. … In all my years of observing the aurora, I’ve never seen such intense pulsating effects. Also, the coronas (all 5 I counted) had more detail in them than I had ever seen.
More of the night sky on Michigan in Pictures.