Solar Flare Will Hit Earth Thursday; Northern Lights May Expand South

· Jan. 8, 2014, 11:34 pm

Tired of reading about intensely cold temperatures? Here’s some news that might help take your mind off this week’s deep freeze. It could even give you an excuse to hang around outside Thursday.

An intense solar flare is being blamed for disrupting a NASA mission and could force airlines to reroute some flights. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the flare is also expected to expand the viewing field of the aurora borealis southward, perhaps down to Colorado and Illinois.

From the AP:

“Federal space weather forecaster Joe Kunches said the sun shot out a strong solar flare late Tuesday, which should arrive at Earth early Thursday. It should shake up Earth’s magnetic field and expand the aurora borealis south, possibly as far south as Colorado and central Illinois. He said best viewing would probably be Thursday evening, weather permitting.”

As solar flares go, “X” denotes the strongest class. The one speeding toward Earth has been classified at the lower end of the spectrum, as an X1.2 flare. Still, the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center says it’s moving at a “fairly fast” rate and will arrive very early Thursday morning.

“Full evaluation and modeling of this event has refined the forecast and indicates a fairly direct interaction with Earth,” the center adds.

As for what that interaction might look like, NASA tells us that we humans aren’t directly at risk. But massive solar flares have been linked to disruptions in GPS and radio signals here on Earth.

“Economies around the world have become increasingly vulnerable to the ever-changing nature of the sun,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tells us. “Solar flares can disrupt power grids, interfere with high-frequency airline and military communications, disrupt Global Positioning System (GPS) signals, interrupt civilian communications, and blanket the Earth’s upper atmosphere with hazardous radiation.”

Shedding light (sorry) on how that works, NASA says that Tuesday’s flare “was also associated with a coronal mass ejection, or CME, another solar phenomenon that can send billions of tons of particles into space that can reach Earth one to three days later. These particles cannot travel through the atmosphere to harm humans on Earth, but they can affect electronic systems in satellites and on the ground.”

And they travel quickly. Last year, NASA calculated that two CMEs were hurtling toward Earth at well over 1,000 miles a second.

If you’re in an area that might get a good glimpse of the Northern Lights, you may want to check out the Space Weather Center’s Aurora Forecast, which maps the “probability of visible aurora,” or the University of Alaska’s similar forecast, which has different maps that could help you pinpoint your area.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit

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