BOSTON (CBS) – The sun is waking up …
Most of us certainly take for granted that the burning hot star in our solar system, otherwise known as the sun, keeps us alive and healthy. When was the last time you really thought about it? The sphere of heat and light 93 million miles away is essentially responsible for everything we consider to be life. While we still have billions of years before it starts to die and take out all the inner planets, there is still good reason to keep a close eye on what it does daily and annually.
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The sun works in 11-year cycles of activity. We are just coming out of a “solar minimum” (a period of relatively quiet, low activity on the surface of the sun) and starting a new solar cycle. To put it mildly, the sun is a very busy and changeable place. So, when I say our sun “wakes up”, I mean essentially that we are entering another active period on the solar surface.
Solar activity is often measured by the number of sunspots on the surface of the sun. The more active the sun, the more sunspots. If you look at images of the sun of today, you will see darker areas on the Sun’s surface (sunspots) that are cooler than the surrounding area. These spots are created by electrically charged gases that swirl around and generate powerful magnetic fields. These swirling gases will stretch and distort the magnetic field so dramatically that we often get an explosion or eruption that results from the sunspot itself. This eruption is also known as a solar flame. During an active solar period (as we are currently in), the sun will essentially burn out solar flares fairly frequently. When one of those sunspots and flames is directed right at the earth, we take special notice.
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Just a few days ago, on March 28, the sun unleashed a multitude of torches, a total of 17, aimed very directly at our planet. In fact, NOAA computer models suggest that some of the torches will combine into one large ejection, called a “Cannibal CME (coronal mass ejection)”, which will hit the Earth’s atmosphere tonight and early Thursday. Fortunately, we have an atmosphere capable of protecting us from these massive bursts of radiation. However, there may be some effects and impact in the next 24 hours or so. Since the magnitude of this ejection is considered to be medium size (M-Class), the most likely consequences will be some intermittent problems with high frequency radios and satellites and GPS navigation systems.
Perhaps the largest by-product of solar flames and the most newsworthy for the masses is Aurora’s. If you have lived in higher latitudes at any time, say up in Northern Canada or Alaska, you have no doubt seen the Northern Lights many times. But for us down here in New England, it’s a very rare phenomenon. Tonight is one of those special nights when people in latitudes as far south as Oregon, Iowa and even Massachusetts get a glimpse of the dancing colors of an Aurora KON. BUT (you knew it was going to come, right?), Unfortunately there will be a lot of clouds tonight. So, since these Aurora alerts are often false alarms and the fact that we will have a lot of clouds, the chances of seeing the Northern Lights tonight are very low. If you happen to get cleanup in your area and you feel adventurous, arrive at an area with as little artificial light pollution as possible and one with a nice view of the horizon without obstruction.
If tonight does not come out, there will be many more opportunities in the coming months and years, as we are heading for a solar maximum in the year 2025. There may even be another opportunity in the coming days, depending on what happens with the current sunspots happen.
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Of course, if you are lucky and manage to take a photo or a video, we would love to see it! Send it to [email protected]