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Will solar storm intensify over next 24 hours?

Mark ClaytonThe Christian Science Monitor
The northern lights came out in North Pole for Valentine's day one day early. Feb 13, 2013
Courtesy Lara Poirrier / Northern Source Images
The northern lights came out in North Pole for Valentine's day one day early. Feb 13, 2013
Courtesy Lara Poirrier / Northern Source Images
The northern lights came out in North Pole for Valentine's day one day early. Feb 13, 2013
Courtesy Lara Poirrier / Northern Source Images
The northern lights came out in North Pole for Valentine's day one day early. Feb 13, 2013
Courtesy Lara Poirrier / Northern Source Images
Northern Lights dancing above the Knik River early morning April 25, 2012.
Courtesy Arlen Ayojiak
Northern Lights dancing above the Knik River early morning April 25, 2012.
Courtesy Arlen Ayojiak
Aurora timelapse over Valdez April 24, 2012
The Living Alaska Project photo
The Northern Lights near Cantwell on April 12, 2012.
Courtesy Todd List
The Northern Lights in Nikiski, AK on March 9, 2012.
Courtesy Leon Richard
The northern lights dancing over a home in Fairbanks, Alaska, during St. Patrick's Day weekend 2012.
Brandon Lovett photo
A stunning display of the northern lights from Fairbanks, Alaska. March is prime time for aurora viewing, especially during the two weeks around new moon.
Brandon Lovett photo
Traditionally, a good time for viewing and photographing aurora borealis activity is between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. But don't bank on it: during strong solar storms aurora can be seen at all hours once the sky darkens.
Brandon Lovett photo
Captured from Birch Hill Cemetery in Fairbanks, Alaska, this photo shows that sometimes, no trees or background are needed, the beauty of the northern lights can stand alone.
Brandon Lovett photo
March 20th marks the first day of the spring equinox during which northern lights viewing is at its peak.
Brandon Lovett photo
Photographers, it's time to get out your cameras! Prime time for norther lights viewing is during March around the spring equinox. The best time for photographing this wonder is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. but with the increase in solar activity, you could catch a glimpse of them pretty much whenever it gets dark.
Brandon Lovett photo
If you need an excuse for a road trip, pack up the camera gear, bundle up the kids and head out beyond the city lights for a glimpse at these amazing displays in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Brandon Lovett photo
Shooting the northern lights requires some testing for the novice. It's time to start! If the preview shows up black, do not, repeat, DO NOT, delete. Your camera will capture more than meets the eye.
Brandon Lovett photo
At times aurora borealis activity comes in spurts. For all you photographers out there braving the cold, hoping to get some good pictures, don't head out or give up after the first show. Instead, consider heading back to your car and warming up.
Brandon Lovett photo
Brilliant green northern lights can be seen from Birch Hill Cemetery in Fairbanks, Alaska. Watching these lights dance across the sky is one of the few events Alaskans have to look forward to during the long, dark, cold months of winter.
Brandon Lovett photo
This photo was taken from Fairbanks, Alaska, a popular viewing place for Alaskans and visitors alike to sneak a peak at the lights. In fact, Fairbanks is such a popular location that some hotels offer wake up calls so you won't miss prime viewing time.
Brandon Lovett photo
Taken March 19th, 2012 at 1am in North Pole, Alaska. We had a North Pole Police officer pull over and check on what we were doing out in the middle of the street.
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
The northern lights in March 2012 at milepost 201 on the Parks Highway.
Tracy Petersen photo
The northern lights in winter 2012.
Lucie Steiger photo
The northern lights in winter 2012.
Lucie Steiger photo
The northern lights in winter 2012.
Lucie Steiger photo
Aurora in Eagle River. March, 2012.
Photo courtesy Curtis Bingham
Northern lights over the Cordova harbor on March 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Chelsea Haisman
Aurora in Eagle River. March, 2012.
Photo courtesy Curtis Bingham
Ursa Major Amongst Aurora. Hatcher Pass, AK March, 9 2012
Photo courtesy Rick Antonio
The northern lights were so beautiful in Anchorage around 3am.
Photo courtesy of Moira C. Choi
March 2012 aurora from Chena Hot Springs Road.
Photo courtesy Thomas Popple
The northern lights from Shishmaref on March 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Ken Stenek
Northern lights during a March 2012 solar storm.
Photo courtesy Sandee Rice
The Anchorage light pollution and moon were no match for this brilliant show!
Photo courtesy Holly Weiss-Racine
Northern lights over Palmer on March 8, 2012.
Photo courtesy Thom Swavely
Northern Lights from Earthquake Park, March 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Christy Hedrick
March 2012 northern lights.
Photo courtesy Colin Tyler Bogucki
The northern lights and full moon.
Photo courtesy Colin Tyler Bogucki
Northern lights near Cold Foot, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Mike Criss, akphotograph.com
Aurora near Cold Foot, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Mike Criss, akphotograph.com
The aurora over North Pole, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
A rocket launched from Poker Flats to study the northern lights heads skyward.
Photo courtesy Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
February aurora over North Pole, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
February aurora over North Pole, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
Northern Lights outside of Delta Junction on Feb. 18, 2012.
Photo courtesy Andrew Downing
Aurora outside of Delta Junction on February 18, 2012.
Photo courtesy Andrew Downing
Aurora borealis over Healy, Alaska on Feb. 18, 2012
Bob Lype photo
Northern lights dance over Cook Inlet at West Anchorage's Earthquake Park
Frank Keller photo
Northern Lights over Talkeetna Airport, 2-18-12
Photo courtesy Josh Martinez
Northern Lights over the Elliot Highway on January 22, 2012
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
Aurora borealis in Goldstream Valley, Alaska, during January 2012 solar storm
Rebekah Cadigan photo
Northern lights over Anchorage
Ryan Soderlund photo
Aurora borealis dancing during the early hours of January 22, 2012. As seen from the Elliot Highway.
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
Aurora borealis over Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Sam Amato photo
Northen lights over the North Slope
Ryan Soderlund photo
Northen lights over the North Slope 2
Ryan Soderlund photo
Aurora borealis over house.
Sam Amato photo
Northern lights over the North Slope
Ryan Soderlund photo
Northern lights over the North Slope
Ryan Soderlund photo
Northern lights dance over the mountains at Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Sam Amato photo
Northern lights over Hatcher Pass in the Mat-Su
Sam Amato photo
Northern lights over Bethel, Alaska on January 25, 2012
Joe "Jojo" Prince photo
Shot this back in October 2011 at Beluga Lake in Homer about 2am. Have not seen recent activitiy here (during January 2012 solar storms) due to cloud cover and snow.
Steve Young photo
Aurora borealis dances in Alaska during January 2012 solar storm
Rebekah Cadigan photo
Northern Lights over Talkeetna Airport, 2-18-12
Photo courtesy Josh Martinez
Taken up near Chatanika, north of Fairbanks, on Jan. 21, 2012
Sandra Osborne photo
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
Shot with a 1981 Canon Ae-1 over a 10-minute exposure period at Denali National Park, Alaska on Jan. 17, 2012.
Finney Kimsey photo
Aurora viewed at Point Woronzof in West Anchorage, dancing over Fire Island in Cook Inlet.
Frank Keller photo
Northern lights dancing over Palmer, Alaska, on Jan. 24, 2012
Andrea Humphreys photo
Northern Lights over Talkeetna Airport, 2-18-12
Photo courtesy Josh Martinez
Northern Lights over Bethel on January 25, 2012.
Joe "Jojo" Prince photo
Northern lights dance over Bethel Alaska during the solar storm in January of 2012.
Joe "Jojo" Prince photo
Cherry red aurora borealis over the Elliot Highway during the early hours of January 22, 2012.
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
A red hue to the aurora borealis over the Elliot Highway during the solar flare event of January 2012.
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images

So far, the solar storm buffeting Earth is weaker than experts had forecast. But the intensity could grow quickly, perhaps becoming severe, during the next 24 hours if the remainder of the storm strikes the Earth’s magnetic envelope in a particular way, as scientists say it might.

Under those conditions, the storm could pose a more serious threat to power grids, satellites, airliners, and radio communications.

This solar geomagnetic storm – called a coronal mass ejection (CME) by scientists – is the strongest to hit Earth since 2005.

Satellite operators were being advised by NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., that some of their systems could be damaged by the cloud of charged particles now reaching earth, which were emitted earlier this week as part a huge solar flare.

Canadian space-weather monitoring groups also sent warnings to power-grid operators at northern latitudes most vulnerable to the storm. At midday, the grid operator for the New England region, which receives the Canadian warnings, said the storm-intensity alerts did not yet require specific actions. Typically, these actions would include firing up local generating plants to reduce stress on long-distance transmission lines.

The nation's three big, regional grids were also doing fine at late morning, according to the North American Electric Reliability Corp., which is in charge of reliability for the nation's major power grids.

Currently, the storm registers at about a G2 level on an intensity scale that goes from one to five, with five being the strongest, says Antti Pulkkinen, a solar weather research scientist at NASA-Goddard.

But that could change. "Based on what we're seeing in the data, it appears there's a good chance of a strong geomagnetic storm somewhere around the G5 level in the next 24 hours," says Dr. Pulkkinen.

Whether this happens could largely be a question of the storm’s orientation.

If the billions of tons of charged particles hitting the Earth strike it in a northward orientation – which is the same direction as the Earth's own magnetic field – then it's "like water off a duck's back," says Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

But if the reverse occurs, which seems possible based on the data he's seeing, "now the fields collide like they love each other, there's and embrace, and energy from the [coronal mass ejection] has opened the gate and floods into Earth's vicinity."

"This is not a bell-ringer yet,” Dr. Baker says. “But it is a storm that looks like it is oriented in a way that should drive it to greater heights."

Intense debate has swirled over and what, if anything, to do about solar storms beyond reactive, defensive actions. Only a handful of such storms has had any serious impact during the past century. Still, societies are more dependent on power grids than ever – and damage to the grid could be severe in some cases.

The power grid is 10 times larger than it was in 1921, when the last solar super storm hit, effectively making it a giant new antenna for geomagnetic current. A far stronger solar outburst could overload and wreck hundreds of crucial high-voltage transformers nationwide, blacking out 130 million people for months and costing as much as $2 trillion, according to a 2010 Oak Ridge National Laboratory study.

The White House and the British government last year unveiled plans to collaborate on a space-weather warning system that would improve predictions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is using a computer-modeling system to predict space weather that became operational last fall. The idea is to give power-grid operators and others time and certainty to prepare for a solar storm.

“I think the utility industry has become much more conscious of the threat from geomagnetic storms – and a lot can be done just monitoring the grid and being prepared to lower power on segments of the grid when they need to do it or fire up local generators," says Jeffrey Hughes, director of the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling at Boston University, which developed the NOAA computer-modeling system. "Obviously, they don't like to do it because it costs more."

The coronal-mass ejection reached NASA's ACE satellite at about 5:45 a.m. Eastern time Thursday, says Joseph Kunches, a physicist with NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo. Ground-based sensors registered the CME's arrival 20 minutes later.

The plasma from the ejection continues to strike Earth's magnetic field and should continue to do so through Friday morning, says Dr. Kunches.

• Staff writer Pete Spotts contributed to this article.