It may still be too light over much of Alaska to see any of the atmospheric fireworks associated with solar activity, but the sun's been making a lot of noise this summer. On Thursday morning, the sun spat out a massive solar flare in Earth's general direction which may result in some brilliant northern lights in the northern U.S. and Alaska -- provided it's actually dark or cloudless enough to see them.
According to NASA's Goddard Space Center, the sun delivered an X-class flare -- the highest designation -- on Thursday morning around 9 a.m., launching a wave of charged particles known as a Coronal Mass Ejection toward the home planet. Once those particles start running into Earth's atmosphere, it could mean some solar storms, possible electrical interference and, of course, auroras.
The aurora forecast page for the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks reflects when the CME should begin hitting Earth, jumping from a forecast of "quiet" on Friday to "extreme" on both Saturday and Sunday. The atmospheric interactions should occur all over the state, but it's going to be too light (or cloudy) over much of the region to see any of the fireworks.
In the weeks surrounding the summer solstice, it's too bright in the Interior and Northern Alaska to see any northern lights, even a bold display like the one expected Saturday. Alaskans on the latitude of Anchorage might have some minor luck, with a possible brief viewing window somewhere between 1 and 3 a.m. -- but don't hold your breath.
"Seeing it in summer is difficult because the sky is too bright in Alaska," Dirk Lummerzheim told Alaska Dispatch in May. "(Southeast) Alaska would definitely work, but the weather there tends to be too cloudy. And then, of course, we would need a fairly active aurora, so that it does move south."
This recent flare satisfies the "active" requirement, so your best chance of seeing Aurora will be further south -- Cordova, in eastern Prince William Sound, is expected to get in on the show, as is Southeast Alaska. But like Lummerzheim noted, the weather forecast doesn't look promising -- the National Weather Service is reporting clouds and rain for much of the Prince William Sound and Southeast regions.
Select others in the northern U.S. might have more luck, as the band of aurora is also expected to reach into the upper parts of North Dakota and Minnesota.
The strength of the solar flare and resulting CME also poses a chance for geomagnetic storms that could affect communications and electrical systems, though the intensity of such interruptions is difficult to gauge.
"One thing that models are NOT capable of is telling us is how strong the CME will be. SWPC forecasters have been inundated with models runs and suggestions of when the CME might arrive, however strength is not determined," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center said Friday morning on its Facebook page. Forecasters estimated that storms could range from mild to moderate.
Even if most Alaskans will miss out on the show this weekend, there's surely plenty more to come. The sun has been producing sizeable solar flares all year, and the state got a glimpse of those in February and March. The sun is also still peaking in its 11-year solar cycle, and should continue to do so into 2013.
If you do happen to be in a position to witness the aurora this weekend, check out our handy explainer on how to photograph the northern lights. Or maybe even keep an ear out for them -- researchers confirmed earlier this week that the aurora is capable of producing noise.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com