There have been some powerful eruptions on the sun this week, which increases the chance the aurora borealis (northern lights) will be visible in all of Minnesota.
Scientists on Monday observed a powerful eruption on the sun's surface that faces Earth, launching a coronal mass ejection (CME) right toward us. We'll let Earth Sky explain:
"Coronal mass ejections – also knowns as CMEs – are powerful eruptions on the sun’s surface. Caused by instabilities in the sun’s magnetic field, they can launch a billion tons of superheated gas into space. Most drift harmlessly across the solar system, but occasionally one is aimed at Earth. When that happens, the resulting magnetic storm can severely disrupt electrical systems and produce brilliant auroral displays."
These eruptions prompted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) to issue a geomagnetic storm watch for Dec. 9-11, which says the CME could arrive late on Dec. 9 as a minor storm but could increase to a strong storm on Dec. 10 and continue to cause disturbances on Dec. 11.
When solar activity hits Earth's atmosphere, you can see it – it's the dancing colors in the night sky called the aurora borealis (northern lights) and aurora australis (southern lights) that's typically only visible near the poles.
But when a stronger geomagnetic storm hits Earth's atmosphere, the aurora borealis can be seen further south – and can be more brilliant.
This week's geomagnetic storm appears strong enough to cause the northern lights to be visible in all of Minnesota and even further south late Wednesday into early Thursday.
As with any weather forecast, though, it's not a guarantee. SWPC writes in its forecast, "While SWPC forecasters are fairly confident in CME arrival at Earth, timing and geomagnetic storm intensity are less certain."
The University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute also tracks the aurora forecast further out. It says auroral activity will be high, with the northern lights visible overhead from Portland, Oregon, to New York City, and low on the horizon as far south as Oklahoma City.
The aurora borealis is best seen when the sky is clear and dark (think away from city lights and other light pollution).
People in northern Minnesota may have a hard time spotting the northern lights Wednesday night due to cloud cover (however, they're treated with aurora's show more often due to their closer proximity to the North Pole).
The southern half of the state, including the Twin Cities, should have more favorable conditions for northern lights viewing. Here's the National Weather Service's cloud cover forecast for 1 a.m., a prime time to view the northern lights:
While strong geomagnetic storms create a beautiful spectacle, the solar activity can also disrupt satellites, power grids and really anything that uses electricity, as well as expose the planted to deadly cosmic rays, Earth Sky says.
The atmosphere currently protects us from the deadly rays, and scientists study the sun so they can predict when these storms will happen so essential services can be protected and shutdown, limiting disruptions to the power grid.