August 3, 2010

"Normally a blast of radiation like this could be expected to wipe out much of the human race..."

"... but fortunately we are protected by the Earth's magnetic field. Instead the deadly solar plasma is expected to stream down the planetary field lines towards the poles, crashing into oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere and so lighting them up to form aurorae - the so-called Northern Lights."

Will we see the aurorae in Wisconsin? I need to know whether and when to look.

45 comments:

AllenS said...

Look north. Best time? I would say after midnight. Find a scenic overlook, or a hill.

TRO said...

"Normally a blast of radiation like this could be expected to wipe out much of the human race . . . but fortunately we are protected by the Earth's magnetic field."

Wow, it's a good thing that old magnetic field popped-up just now or we'd be goners like all the other times this has happened when it wasn't there, ya know.

traditionalguy said...

Good to see a solar storm pointed at the earth again. That blocks out the cosmic rays that were increasing cloud formations. Less clouds means that the sun will warm us up thus slowing down the Global Cooling that is threatening to make winters terrible, like the South American winter has been this year.

rhhardin said...

You can sign up for a phone call if an aurora appears, off of spaceweather.com.

I haven't tried it.

MadisonMan said...

Maybe Madison will luck out and it'll be clear tonight.

Alex said...

It's amazing when you think about all the factors that go into allowing complex life to exist on the Earth's surface. If you took away the magnetic field, the only form of life that would continue to exist is the cyanobacteria in hydrothermal vents deep in the oceans. Literally speaking our environment made us.

Big Mike said...

Will we see the aurorae in Wisconsin?

Almost certainly. You probably need to be away from sources nighttime light pollution, but the aurora borealis has historically been seen well south of Wisconsin (for instance it was visible over the battlefield on the night after the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg).

MadisonMan said...

but the aurora borealis has historically been seen well south of Wisconsin

There was an aurora borealis visible in Brownsville, TX, some time ago. Can't find mention of it via google, but I recall it when it happened.

Richard Fagin said...

TRO, I apppreciate the humor, but you may find it interesting that Earth has no magnetic field for a few hundred to a few thousand years, every 3/4 million years or so when the magnetic field poles reverse. Magnetic pole reversals are well documented in the fossil record.

Yes, there were times when it wasn't there. Kind of puts global warming, surface ozone, acid rain and all the other man-made environmental bugaboos in perspective, doesn't it? Not to mention I'm going to have to buy a new damned compass.

edutcher said...

I've seen aurorae in Maine, so WI should see it.

Hazy Dave said...

There was highly visible aurora in Milwaukee a few years ago, directly overhead. It wasn't really the "sheets" of light I've been led to expect of the Northern lights, but it was a bright green color, easily distinguished from the normal mercury vapor orange light pollution.

I recommend checking it out at night. After dark.

Richard Fagin said...

That orange light pollution is sodium vapor.

Hazy Dave said...

I knew that. (Thanks.)

So where are the astroboffins gathering tonight?

ricpic said...

The nerdy solar plasma
Went doodling down the street,
Morose that it could neither glow
Nor yield a cheesy treat.

Quaestor said...

The light show (if any) should commence about 11PM CDT. Face North, but auroral lights can show up in the southern sky too.

OT
According to ynetnews.com: "Ahead of her 90th birthday, veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas, who resigned following her offensive remarks against Israel, may be getting a statue in her honor at the Arab American National Museum in Michigan."

I wonder how something that gelatinous can be rendered convincingly in stone.

wv: excelly - (av) proceeding in a spreadsheet-like manner

MathMom said...

Check this website. It tells you all you need to know.

http://www.gedds.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/

Quaestor said...

Stand on the southern shore of a large body of clam water, ie a largish lake. The reflective qualities of the water will enhance and amplify the experience.

traditionalguy said...

Could this be another trick by Palin the Alaskan to get attention? All wise men and women will be looking towards Alaska tonight to see a brilliant new light. That is another Jungian collective subconscious move if I ever saw one.

Triangle Man said...

I could get behind adopting the term boffin over here.

mariner said...

MadisonMan,

There was an aurora borealis visible in Brownsville, TX, some time ago.



April 1989?

TRO said...

"TRO, I apppreciate the humor, but you may find it interesting that Earth has no magnetic field for a few hundred to a few thousand years, every 3/4 million years or so when the magnetic field poles reverse. Magnetic pole reversals are well documented in the fossil record."

Actually, layman though I am, I did know that the Earth's magnetic field does reverse every few thousand years or so. I was unaware that it totally disappeared during the reversals, however.

This article says it brings it down to 10% not zero, although I would guess that humans would be just as much toast at either level.

http://www.innovations-report.com/html/reports/earth_sciences/report-27971.html

It's the "normally" that got me though. I guess this particular scientist believes the reversals are much more frequent than, thank goodness, they are.

My goodness, I hope we're not due for a reversal tonight otherwise we really are screwed.

Unless Barry can save the day, that is.

mariner said...

April 1989?

Nope.

13-14 March 1989

AllenS said...

Look north. The best time to view the Aurora Borealis is right after the bars close.

Original Mike said...

Northern lights. I'm thinking look .....

A good aurora is way cool. I've seen a few spectacular ones. Several covering virtually the entire sky, but those were up north. Down here a good one will subtend several tens of degrees of altitude (from the northern horizon). If it's really good, should be bright enough even in the city (though dark skies are better). I would suggest going to a place where you are not looking directly into street lights. The Speedway cemeteries are a possibility. The Union Terrace should have a great view to the north. The Arboretum prairie would be great, but they "close" the damn place (i.e. don't allow parking) after, I believe, 11 pm. It's a problem we amateur astronomers have all the time. All the good citizens are suppose to be in bed at night, so the cops can assume anyone parking are criminals. {grrrrr}

Oh, I forgot to say that. Try looking At. Night..

And when there aren't any clouds. Both tonight and tomorrow night look promising , but iffy.

David said...

"I need to know whether and when to look."

You must look if you want to see them. Best advice is look up, north and at night.

Original Mike said...

My experience is that auroral prediction accuracy is about on par with the weather forcast. In other words, I wouldn't cancel a hot date based on them.

{ducks}

T J Sawyer said...

I agree with O.M. "I wouldn't cancel a hot date based on them (forecasts)."

That said, it is probably worth a drive north from the city tonight after dark. North and dark are the two key words.

I've seen ordinary ones on 3 out of 4 trips to the boundary waters on the the Minnesota/Canadian border. The best two displays I've seen were during similar solar disturbances and one was so visible in the city in the Minneapolis area that we woke the neighbors and suggested that they get their boys outside to take a look.

(Aren't you glad you don't live next door?)

Gene said...

As a kid, I once saw the aurora borealis on cold clear winter night in southern Pennsylvania. Interestingly enough, it wasn't so much in the north as in the southeast.

lemondog said...

Natl Geo Amazing Northern Lights Time Lapse

Just lacking Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain soundtrack.

TheGiantPeach said...

Magnetic field or no, there is some fear among scientists studying Coronal Mass Ejections that the next "big one" will be a huge catastrophe. The largest recorded CME, the Carrington Event, hit the earth in September 1859. It disrupted telegraph communications. In 1859, that was about all the infrastructure that a CME could confound. Today, it's been speculated that a Carrington-level hit could wipe out electrical and communications systems all across the world (or maybe across half the world), leaving us literally and metaphorically in the dark for quite some time. It would easily be the worst natural disaster in history.

HDHouse said...

showering and going to bed now. alarm set for 2am. I can't wait.

In the summer of 1966 I vacationed with my dad in Ontario at a fishing camp..Lochalsh, Lake Wabatongushi...we went to a movie with a little home projector in the village. about 25 people, dogs, and 5 reels of "the longest day". We stumbled back to the camp about 11p and the northern lights were amazing. simply one of the great sights of my entire life

I'm gonna look at them tonight and think of my dad who is watching them from a different angle.

dbp said...

"Normally a blast of radiation like this could be expected to wipe out much of the human race, but fortunately we are protected by the Earth's magnetic field."

Normally traveling at 500MPH, 30,000 feet in the air would result in death from freezing, lack of oxygen or impact with the ground, but fortunately we are protected from this by being located inside of a jetliner when we fly.

AllenS said...

Mr. House,

Yes, an awesome sight.

John said...

Check the auroral oval at spaceweather.com also note the solar wind speed It has increased a lot since this afternoon and the oval is getting bigger. Tonight looks good for Michagan where I am and Wisconsin

Quaestor said...

Gene said: "it wasn't so much in the north as in the southeast."

As I mentioned earlier auroral lights can be seen in the southern sky as well. They're called "northern lights" not because they are see in the northern region of your local sky but because the display is more common in the higher latitudes. By the same token the aurora australis are more likely to be seen in the higher southern latitudes. The Earth's magnetic field can be quite chaotic from time to time for reasons yet unknown, and can conduct streams of solar plasma to just about any portion of the local sky.

Another point. The rather breathless article published on The Register site quoted by Ann claims this bust of solar wind headed our way would likely fry humanity if not for the magnetosphere. Poppycock. This is a huge mass of charged particles (ie plasma) not hard radiation. The sun does produce hard radiation, and some of this hard radiation is defected by the magnetosphere. But hard radiation is "hard" because it's highly energetic. High energy means in relativistic terms high mass and high speed. Alpha rays get here in about 10-12 minutes (near light-speed). The solar wind takes days to cover the same distance, and its particles are very low-energy compared to ionizing radiation.

What we're about to experience is a geomagetic storm. It can be quite damaging to semiconductors. But the effects on living organisms are negligible. At any given point on the Earth's surface the local field density is going to be in the hundreds of milligauss range, say 550mG to 700mG. When the CME hits us tonight the local field density may fluctuate significantly, from 100mG to 1.5mG or more (For perspective a refrigerator magnet has about a 10G field density. Gauss, btw, is a logarithmic scale measure. A 10G field is 100 times more attractive to a piece of iron than a 1G field).

A popular myth from a few decades back was that power lines caused cancer because of their relatively strong field densities. Stand under a 60KV power line and you're likely to be immersed in a 2000mG field. Horrors! Think of the children! This particular worry has abated somewhat since lab experiments haven't shown any ill effects. Frogs have been levitated in MegaGauss fields without harm.

In short, you are more in danger from the fields generated by your computer than from any likely CM ejection.

wv: remit - Hey, I thought the word verification engine excluded real words!

MathMom said...

Mariner -

I was flying from Anchorage to San Antonio the night of March 13-14, 1989. We were on a house-hunting trip prior to our move to Alaska. As we were flying south we had a full sky of multicolor aurora. I felt so blessed to have witnessed such a glorious spectacle.

The next evening on the news in San Antonio, the announcer said "Well, if you wondered what all those colors in the sky were last night, it was the aurora borealis!" Pissed me off.

But...the next two years were simply spectactular for aurora in Alaska. The highest aK numbers for 60 years. I was up there last week, but since it's not dark yet I didn't get to see any. It was also raining. We used to have a saying in Alaska - "Clouds cause aurora."

As I recall, plasma travels at 1 million MPH, so I'm surprised the sky is expected to light up tonight. It's only 48 hours since the CME. Normally you have to wait 3+ days before the leading edge of a big storm comes through.

MathMom said...

The new forecast at the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks was just put up. The auroral oval looks like you folks in Wisconsin and Minnesota may get a show.

Name of forecaster: Charles Deehr
Time of prediction: 8/2/2010 2:01:00 PM*

Forecast:Auroral activity will be active. Weather permitting, active auroral displays will be visible overhead from Inuvik, Yellowknife, Rankin and Igaluit to Juneau, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Sept-Iles, and visible low on the horizon from Vancouver, Great Falls, Pierre, Madison, Lansing, Ottawa, Portland and St. Johns.

Ken Mitchell said...

Visit www.spaceweather.com for near-real-time reports of auroras, and photos of them.

T J Sawyer said...

Not much of a show.

I'm going to bed.

Gene said...

HD House: I'm gonna look at them tonight and think of my dad who is watching them from a different angle.

That's a nice thought.

HDHouse said...

@AllenS...

completely cloud covered. alas.

mariner said...

I was standing watch in a U.S. supply ship (a ship that transfers supplies to U.S. Navy warships at sea), transiting from the Strait of Gibraltar to Norfolk, VA. We were over a thousand miles from the nearest land, and not quite as far north as Norfolk.

As the dull red glow came low on the western and northwestern horizon, I could only think one thing:

"My God. It's happened."

I walked back to the communications center and asked as calmly as I could if the ship still had communications with Norfolk. The watch supervisor assured me we did, and asked why.

"Umm ... just curious."

As others started calling the bridge fearing as I had, I was able to tell them that while I didn't know what we were seeing, home was still out there.

AlphaLiberal said...

North of town. We've admired them from just NW of Sun Prairie before.

lemondog said...

Auroras from Chippewa Falls, WI.

Original Mike said...

Nice pics, lemondog. Thanks!