Forget fireworks – the Universe "scheduled" a visually spectacular show right before New Year's Eve for places in specific latitudes.
On Dec. 28, a solar flare blasted directly toward Earth and is expected to hit the planet in the wee hours of Dec. 30 or Dec. 31. According to the Space Weather Prediction Center, the effects of this solar flare may last until the New Year.
In the wake of a massive solar storm, those in luck may see the northern lights dancing in the night sky. People who live in high-altitude places and in northern states, including Oregon and Illinois, are most likely to see the aurora borealis.
"Minnesota certainly would have a shot at it, assuming that it remains strong enough through the evening into the night," said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration physicist Terry Onsager.
The aurora borealis could also be seen in the Bay Area.
"It depends entirely on the strength of the storm. If it turns out to be stronger than that, it could be seen," says Onsager.
However, despite the breathtaking beauty of the northern lights, scientists said massive geomagnetic storms can cause different widespread disruptions.
What Happens During A Solar Storm
A solar or geomagnetic storm occurs when there is an efficient exchange of energy between the solar wind and the Earth's atmosphere.
In this case, a sunspot cluster erupted and flashed an M-class flare toward the Earth, which is not as strong as an X-class flare. The solar flare triggered a coronal mass ejection that could hit the planet on Thursday.
Tony Phillips of NASA explains that sunspot AR2374 has some unstable 'beta-gamma' magnetic field that could have also exploded hours after solar flares blasted on Monday. Forecasters from NOAA estimates a 55 percent chance of additional M-class flares and a 10 percent chance of X-flares.
Solar flares and coronal mass ejections are caused by the same magnetic phenomenon. When there is high magnetic activity on the sun, its internal magnetic field pushes its way through the sun's photosphere, exposing the inner sun. Regions that are magnetically active are visible as dark spots or sunspots.
Magnetic field lines are forced together above these sunspots, and magnetic reconnection may take place. This causes solar plasma to accelerate at relativistic speeds and generate bursts of solar flares.
Onsager says solar flares that hit the Earth act like a flowing battery and cause magnetic energy to shift. A compass in a strong geomagnetic storm would wiggle, he says.
"The whole earth's magnetic system is embedded in this flowing 'battery.' That is what drives the electric currents around us," says Onsager.
The Effects Of A Solar Storm
The solar flare on Monday caused an ionization event across Africa, South America and the South Atlantic Ocean. A blackout in these places may have been detected by 20MHz-frequency ham radio operators and mariners.
Meanwhile, the expected coronal mass ejection is classified as a strong G3 class geomagnetic storm. Aside from radio blackouts, these types of storms can create fluctuations in power grids, affect GPS reception, and lead to surface charging on space crafts.
Should This Be A Cause For Alarm?
While massive solar storms sound terrifying, scientists say the current solar storm should not cause panic or fear. This type of geomagnetic storm is not strong enough to cause any harm.
Meanwhile, the United States government has designed a plan for any possible occurrences of catastrophic solar flares. A massive and devastating solar storm may strike every 500 years, and it could permanently destroy power grids all over the world.
"Frankly, this could be one of the most severe natural disasters that the country, and major portions of the world, could face," says John Kappenman, a space weather consultant.