Heads up! Solar storm could disrupt communications, produce northern lights in New England

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP/Boston 25 News) — An unusually strong solar storm headed toward Earth could produce northern lights in the U.S. this weekend, including in New England, and potentially disrupt power and communications.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a rare geomagnetic storm watch — the first in nearly 20 years. That was expected to become a warning Friday night, when the effects of the solar outburst were due to reach Earth.

NOAA already has alerted operators of power plants and spacecraft in orbit to take precautions.

“As far as the worst situation expected here at Earth, that’s tough to say and I wouldn’t want to speculate on that,” said NOAA space weather forecaster Shawn Dahl. “However, severe level is pretty extraordinary, It’s a very rare event to happen.”

NOAA said the sun produced strong solar flares beginning Wednesday, resulting in five outbursts of plasma capable of disrupting satellites in orbit and power grids here on Earth. Each eruption — known as a coronal mass ejection — can contain billions of tons of plasma and magnetic field from the sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona.

The flares seem to be associated with a sunspot that’s 16 times the diameter of Earth, according to NOAA. An extreme geomagnetic storm in 2003 took out power in Sweden and damaged power transformers in South Africa.

The latest storm could produce northern lights as far south in the U.S. as Alabama and Northern California, according to NOAA.

The most intense solar storm in recorded history, in 1859, prompted auroras in central America and possibly even Hawaii. “That’s an extreme-level event,” Dahl said. “We are not anticipating that” but it could come close.

Boston 25 News Meteorologist Tucker Antico said in a Facebook post, “Most of the northern half of the US will be able to see the aurora late Friday night into early Saturday morning. Skies are likely to be very clear nationwide.”

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Posted by Tucker Antico on Thursday, May 9, 2024

In his “hopeful aurora viewing forecast,” Antico said, “We actually have a chance to see the northern lights...This is one of our best chances in perhaps a decade or longer.”

Parts of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont have the best chance of seeing the northern lights, but Antico noted that all of New England should at least take some time to take a look at the northern horizon for a possible glimpse after nightfall.

Shiri Spear added, “Although northern New England will LIKELY see it, viewing may be possible in the Boston area and across southern New England too.”

A solar storm will cause Aurora visibility to expand tonight. Although northern New England will LIKELY see it, viewing...

Posted by Shiri Spear Boston 25 on Friday, May 10, 2024

“Although it will be chilly tonight, you’ll definitely want to step outside,” Antico said.

Temperatures are expected to be in the 40s when prime viewing time rolls around.

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