Q&A: What to know about a strong solar storm and aurora in Western WA

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One of the biggest solar storms in recent memory is hitting Earth this weekend.

The storm could lead to some breathtaking views of the red and green glow of an aurora borealis, visible to many in Western Washington given the region’s clear night skies forecast.

The aurora is expected to be visible in the region through Sunday night.

But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is also warning of potential disruptions the storm could cause on the nation’s power and communication infrastructures.

NOAA alerted operators of power plants and spacecraft in orbit to take precautions, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Ahead of the storm, The Seattle Times talked with University of Washington earth and space sciences professor Michael McCarthy about what to expect and some tips for spotting great views of the aurora.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What exactly is a geomagnetic storm?

In essence, the electrons and protons that surround Earth out in space are sort of held in place by Earth’s magnetic field. A geomagnetic storm is instigated by an outburst of material from the sun that basically shakes that structure. It causes a number of those electrons to move into different positions … They generate very strong electric currents, and those currents can be disruptive to our electrical system.

What kind of disruption can such a storm cause?

There have been storms in the past that would have really been destructive to our current power systems … Things that have happened in the past that pretty much would have wiped out a lot of our subsystems of electrical and perhaps communications too.

But for most of the radio communications that are done now, like cellular networks, they’re pretty impervious to the effects of solar storms.

So, we shouldn’t expect too much disruption?

I think that’s a safe bet, at least with what’s coming down the rails right now.

We have to be prepared for it though. I think that’s what the NOAA is doing. They’re in communication with power companies to lessen the likelihood of big current surges, which are an effect of geomagnetic storms having large unwanted currents flowing in the power system that could damage transformers.

In Quebec, there was a big solar storm [in 1989] that basically damaged a lot of power structure for several days, with lingering effects going on much longer than that.

There’s some lessons learned from that outage associated with how you switch power around and turn systems off or disconnect things, so that these large unwanted currents that a geomagnetic storm can cause don’t damage the systems we have.

Still, [in 2003] we had a G5 [extreme] storm, nicknamed the Halloween storm. I don’t recall any serious problem with power outages [in the U.S.] during that storm. [For the weekend’s activity], we are well away from an electrical system damage threshold.

What kind of communication could be disrupted by the solar storm?

AM broadcast could be affected, especially at night.

What happens is that disruptive effects of geomagnetic activity appear as a result of a whole bunch more electrons hitting the upper atmosphere. AM radio may not be able to bounce effectively off the ionosphere.

So, a long-distance AM propagation may be blacked out. A normal night may allow a Chicago to Spokane AM radio link, but that could disappear this weekend.

Do people need to do anything to prepare for the solar storm?

The only thing I’m going to do that’s different than normal is I’m going to watch a couple of cameras … to see if there’s any aurora. If there is, I’m going to go out at night around midnight or whenever that is and look around. So, there could be a slight increase in Seattle traffic.

What tips do you have in spotting an aurora?

There’s a website called skunkbayweather.com and they have a low-light camera that’s staring to the north. What I’m going to do is I’m going to start looking at that camera periodically … If I see some activity there, then I’ll probably get some warm stuff and go see if I can find a hill to get a good view to the north.

If it’s not a really bright aurora, it might look like a pale cloud. So, you need to stare at it for a good minute or two and notice if they’re doing any strange movements and in particular, if they have sort of a vertical structure to them like little curtains do.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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