Solar storm could disrupt GPS, cause Northern Lights show

This strong solar flare Wednesday is part of an ongoing solar storm that is bombarding earth with charged, magnetic particles today. NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory

This strong solar flare Wednesday is part of an ongoing solar storm that is bombarding earth with charged, magnetic particles today. NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory

Look outside. Believe it or not, it’s storming right now.

The Earth is presently being bombarded with a powerful geomagnetic storm. It’s the result of explosions on the sun two days ago that threw off coronal mass ejections, globs — a billion tons or so — of the sun’s plasma along with magnetic clouds of charged atomic particles, in the direction of Earth.

It’s the strongest geomagnetic storm — known as a category G4 — since fall 2013. While such storms can sometimes cause fluctuations in power grids, there are no reports of outages or other disruptions from this one, said Brent Gordon, space weather services branch chief for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

Satellite disruption is not expected, but people could see glitches with their global positioning systems today, center director Thomas Berger said. Services such as the Google Maps app rely on satellites to lock onto ground positions, but that signal must travel through the ionosphere, an area of Earth’s upper atmosphere with charged, magnetized particles, he said. As those particles are reacting to the solar storm, GPS service could be spotty, he said.

How long the solar storm will last is uncertain, researchers said. But if it continues into the evening, Michigan could be in store for a light show in the night sky. The aurora borealis, dancing bands of green and red light in the sky caused by electrical activity in the upper atmosphere, is typically confined to areas around the North and South Poles. But Alaska, Washington, the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin all saw the so-called northern lights shows before dawn today. And the aurora borealis could be seen as far south as the central U.S. tonight, Gordon said.

“If the storm continues into nighttime hours, Michigan is certainly going to be in a prime location to see this, given what we’ve seen so far,” he said.

Northern Lights may be visible tonight

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