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Are Alaska's aurora borealis more danger than dazzle?

Laurel Andrews
The Northern Lights dance above Tahneta pass in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights over North Pole, Alaska, November 1, 2012
Courtesy Lara Poirrier
The northern lights, photographed in Fairbanks, Alaska. September 18, 2012
Courtesy Brandon Lovett
The Northern Lights dance above Sheep Mountain in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights over North Pole, Alaska, November 1, 2012
Courtesy Lara Poirrier
The northern lights, photographed in Fairbanks, Alaska. September 18, 2012
Courtesy Brandon Lovett
This image was captured just outside of Fairbanks at the pipeline viewpoint.
Trevor Gridley
Northern lights above O'Malley peak in Anchorage. May 1, 2013
Courtesy Todd Running
The Northern Lights dance above Sheep Mountain in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights over North Pole, Alaska, November 1, 2012
Courtesy Lara Poirrier
Aurora chasing is always a game of chance: even nights predicted for good viewing oftentimes don't pan out. The sky must be clear and you must be far from city lights. Oh - and the universe itself must cooperate, too.
Brandon Lovett photo
Northern lights above O'Malley peak in Anchorage. May 1, 2013
Courtesy Todd Running
The Northern Lights dance above Sheep Mountain in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights over North Pole, Alaska, November 1, 2012
Courtesy Lara Poirrier
Northern lights blaze over Alaska all year long. However, come May, June and July, much of the state is bathed in 20-24 hours of sunlight, making the aurora difficult to watch.
Brandon Lovett photo
Northern Lights dance above North Pole on April 14, 2013
Courtesy Northern Source Images
The Northern Lights dance above Tahneta pass in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights, October 12, 2012
Courtesy Todd List
Northern lights activity increases with solar storms. This year has seen several massive solar storms, and the aurora borealis viewing has in turn been pretty amazing over Alaska, particularly earlier in 2012.
Brandon Lovett photo
Northern Lights dance above North Pole on April 14, 2013
Courtesy Northern Source Images
The Northern Lights dance above the Eureka Roadhouse in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights, October 12, 2012
Courtesy Todd List
Aurora borealis shimmers over Delta Junction, Alaska, just after midnight on Thursday, Aug. 23. (More photos: Facebook.com/SebastianSaarloos)
Sebastian Saarloos photo
On the night of March 16, 2013, the northern lights were out in force across Alaska. This photo was taken from Eureka Lodge between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Loren Holmes photo
The milky way is colored by faint aurora at Tahneta pass in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights, October 12, 2012
Courtesy Todd List
Location is a key factor when preparing to photograph northern lights. As aurora activity increases it normally starts from the east as Earth rotates into the dancing lights.
Brandon Lovett photo
On the night of March 16, 2013, the northern lights were out in force across Alaska. This photo was taken from Eureka Lodge between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Loren Holmes photo
The Northern Lights dance above Tahneta pass in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern lights as seen from Talkeetna on Oct. 12, 2012.
Dora Miller photo
Traditionally, good times for aurora viewing and photographing in Alaska come between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. But during strong solar storms aurora can be seen at all hours once the sky darkens.
Brandon Lovett photo
On the night of March 16, 2013, the northern lights were out in force across Alaska. This photo was taken from Eureka Lodge between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Loren Holmes photo
The Northern Lights dance above Sheep Mountain in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern lights as seen over Nikiski on Oct. 12, 2012.
Leslie Richards photo
When photographing northern lights, controlling the movement of your camera is paramount. Remote shutter release is one way to keep movement minimal.
Brandon Lovett photo
A view of the northern lights from the International Space Station on Jan. 29, 2012.
NASA photo
The Northern Lights dance above Sheep Mountain in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
The northern lights were strong enough on Oct. 12, 2012 to be seen even in the city lights of Anchorage.
Jacob Todd photo
Aurora dances above a residence in Bear Valley, on the south side of Anchorage, on Oct. 12, 2012.
Courtesy Chuck Berray
North Pole and Fairbanks got a nice light show early March 3,2013. For about 45 minutes the aurora ebbed and flowed in the sky. Lara Poirrier of Northern Source Images was able to catch this photo.
Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
The Northern Lights dance above Sheep Mountain in the early morning hours of November 13, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Northern Lights above Eagle River, with Denali in the background.
Courtesy Alaska's Nature
Aurora above Anchorage, Alaska, on Oct. 12, 2012.
Courtesy Chuck Berray
Photographer Trevor Gridley says he "caught this image on the way to work a while back" in Interior Alaska.
Trevor Gridley
Northern lights dance above the Knik river early morning November 8, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
The Northern Lights dance above southcentral Alaska skies on September 30, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Aurora weaves under the Big Dipper constellation in Palmer, Alaska.10:30 p.m., Oct 12., 2012.
Courtesy Thom Swavely
Beautiful crazy colors captured in Alaska's Interior during the winter of 2013.
Trevor Gridley
Northern lights dance above the Knik river as the moon rises early morning November 8, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
The Northern Lights dance above southcentral Alaska skies on September 30, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A view of the northern lights on Nov. 23, 2012 near Fox, Alaska.
Lucie Steiger photo
Northern Lights dance above Palmer on Dec 16, 2012.
Courtesy Thom Swavely
Northern Lights over North Pole, Alaska, November 1, 2012
Courtesy Lara Poirrier
Northern Lights above Alaska on September 30, 2012
Courtesy Melissa Wollman
A view of the northern lights on Nov. 23, 2012 near Fox, Alaska.
Lucie Steiger photo
Northern Lights dance above Palmer on Jan 15, 2013.
Courtesy Thom Swavely
Northern Lights over North Pole, Alaska, November 1, 2012
Courtesy Lara Poirrier
The northern lights, photographed in Fairbanks, Alaska. September 18, 2012
Courtesy Brandon Lovett
The northern lights on Nov. 23, seen just north of Fairbanks in the Steele Creek area.
Ed Gonzalez photo
Northern Lights dance above Palmer on Dec 16, 2012.
Courtesy Thom Swavely
Northern Lights over North Pole, Alaska, November 1, 2012
Courtesy Lara Poirrier
The northern lights, photographed in Fairbanks, Alaska. September 18, 2012
Courtesy Brandon Lovett
This image was taken at Chena Hot Springs Resort in Interior Alaska. (Image cropped from original)
Aaron Corbeil

Solar storms are best known for leading to brilliant aurora borealis, like those that danced over Alaska skies earlier this week. 

Without solar storms, northern lights like these, filmed at Olnes Pond north of Fairbanks on Monday, wouldn't be possible. 

But solar storms also pose dangers that scientists at work in the European Arctic are racing to understand.

On the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, researchers have commenced an “urgent investigation” to understand the effects of solar storms on global positioning satellites (GPS).

A solar storm begins with a sudden explosion on the sun’s surface that's equivalent to billions of nuclear bombs. Storms are usually accompanied by a coronal mass ejection, recently called a “plasma blob” by the National Weather Service, which creates northern lights when the charged particles strike Earth’s magnetic field.

Scientists have long known that solar storms cause electrical problems. But why does solar weather distort Earth's ionosphere? Scientists can't yet fully explain the mechanics that cause disturbance to GPS transmissions passing through the ionosphere on the way to receivers at ground level. Meantime, airplanes continue to avoid northern lights as much as possible, often following flight patterns and routes south of the Aurora Oval. Just last year, a solar flare disrupted communications in China, and in the U.S., Congress debated about whether the nation's power grid should be backed up by transformer-sized surge protectors.

Northern lights affect your smartphone GPS?

At the Svalbard research station, effects of space weather on Arctic communications was measurable even on a calm day, with GPS receivers off by as much as 3 meters, according to the BBC.

A significant solar storm can cause GPS inaccuracies measured in the tens of meters.

Svaldbard was chosen for its isolation from electronic pollution, making it “the best place” to study aurora's effects on communication systems, Professor Dag Lorentzen told the BBC. Researchers fire radio beams into the ionosphere, mimicking the effects of a solar flare in order to measure solar interference. They hope to develop a system to forecast the effects of space weather on communications systems.

The research is all the more pressing given recent increase in traffic northern climes, and the effect solar storms could have on navigational equipment as more people head north.

Read more from the BBC, and more about solar flares.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com