The aurora borealis could appear in New York, Chicago and Portland on Wednesday as solar storms hit Earth.

The aurora borealis could appear in New York, Chicago and Portland on Wednesday as solar storms hit Earth.

Northern Lights

The northern lights (northern lights) are seen in the sky near Rovaniemi in Lapland, Finland on October 7, 2018.Alexander Kuznetsov/Reuters

  • Plasma flares from the sun are approaching Earth and will likely cause a geomagnetic storm.

  • That could bring the northern lights south of New York, Chicago and Portland on Wednesday night.

  • Solar storms can be disruptive to radio, GPS, satellites and other technologies.

Eruptions of electrically charged plasma from the sun could push the aurora borealis as far as New York, Chicago and Portland, Oregon on Wednesday night.

Solar flares are called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). They are named for their origins in the corona, the outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere, and a number of them are traveling towards Earth right now. All are expected to arrive around 1 am ET on Thursday, possibly triggering stunning and highly active auroras in southern Pennsylvania, Iowa and Oregon, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center, a branch of the National Weather Service.

blue image shows white plasma erupting from the dark circle where the sun is located

A coronal mass ejection (CME) erupting from the sun on August 17, 2022. The sun is blocked out so that its corona is visible.NOAA/Space Weather Prediction Center

Aurora appears when Earth’s magnetic field channels electrically charged solar particles toward the poles, where the particles interact with gases in Earth’s atmosphere. This is what creates brightly colored ribbons.

When CMEs send floods of these particles to Earth, it causes a geomagnetic storm, which can produce particularly impressive auroras.

earth magnetic field solar wind aurora poles charged particles

Earth’s magnetic field funnels charged particles from the sun toward the poles.NASA Goddard/K Conceptual Imaging Laboratory. Kim

Geomagnetic storms can wreak havoc on power grids and satellites

Solar storms don’t just bring beautiful auroras. The flood of solar particles can also interfere with electrical grids, GPS and radio communications, and even affect satellite orbits around the Earth. Wednesday’s storm shouldn’t have much of an impact on the technology, but previous solar storms have caused problems.

coronal mass ejection sun

The sun blows a coronal mass ejection, February 24, 2015.NASA/GSFC

In 1989, a flood of particles from the sun knocked out Quebec’s power for about nine hours. Two other solar storms cut emergency radio communications for a total of 11 hours shortly after Hurricane Irma in 2017. A solar storm may even have cut off Titanic’s SOS transmissions when it sank on April 14, 1912, but that is not known with certainty.

Bursts of solar activity can also endanger astronauts in Earth orbit by interfering with their spacecraft or disrupting communications with mission control.

red green northern lights above a pine lake

Swirls of green and red appear in an aurora over Whitehorse, Yukon, on the night of September 3, 2012.Courtesy of David Cartier, Sr./NASA/Reuters

Therefore, studying the source of charged solar particles could help scientists figure out how to protect astronauts and Earth’s electrical grid from these unpredictable electrical storms. Two spacecraft currently orbiting the Sun are doing just that.

In February 2020, NASA and the European Space Agency launched the Solar Orbiter to capture data on eruptions on the sun’s surface. NASA’s Parker Solar Probe is also approaching the sun. It is designed to measure solar flares as they happen, tracking the flow of material from the sun to Earth in real time.

solar orbiter solar spacecraft

Artist’s impression of Solar Orbiter observing an eruption on the sun.ESA/AOES

The information these spacecraft are collecting could one day help scientists predict more geomagnetic storms before they happen.

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