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Solar storm lights up northern skies

Francois Campredon / AFP - Getty Images

Northen lights ripple through the skies over Abisko in Swedish Lapland late March 7.



So far, the disruption caused by this week's solar storm seems to be minimal, but skywatchers are maximizing the opportunity to see auroral fireworks — and tonight just might be prime time for the show. Or maybe not.

For several days now, the sun has been sending out bursts of electrically charged particles, known as coronal mass ejections or CMEs. The most spectacular flare-up came late Tuesday, when two X-class solar flares blazed up from a particularly active sunspot region. The waves of particles associated with those flares began sweeping over Earth's magnetic field today.


Usually, that would suggest that tonight's the night to look for the northern lights in somewhat less northern regions of the globe — say, Massachusetts, Nebraska or Oregon. Two factors could put a damper on those expectations: First, the geomagnetic component of the storm is not as powerful as space weather forecasters had expected, at least not yet. Second, the full moon's glare might wash out the delicate glow of the aurora.

To find out whether there's a chance of seeing the northern lights, check out the Ovation Auroral Forecast map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Testbed, as well as the Aurora Forecast website maintained by the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute. Right now the outlook is great for Fairbanks and Edmonton, not so good for Boise or Boston. But you never know — and besides, it's worth going out to take a look at the moon and several planets together in the sky, even if the northern lights aren't shining in your locale.

Rest assured the lights will be shining in the usual places, including Scandinavia, Russia and Canada. Here are a few of the beauties from last night. For even more, click on over to the galleries at SpaceWeather.com:

Timo Veijalainen / AV-Lappi

Timo Veijalainen of Sodankyla, Finland, sends along this picture of the northern lights. "There were lots of clouds during the night, but driving to east was answer to our problem," he said in a note to SpaceWeather.com. "Near midnight, auroras started to dance. It didn't last long, but luckily I got few images." Check out the gallery at SpaceWeather.com, and stop by Veijalainen's AV-Lappi website.

AuroraMAX / CSA

The AuroraMAX all-sky camera near Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories captured this subtle display of greenish and reddish auroral lights early this morning. For more from AuroraMAX, check out the project's website and Twitpic gallery.

NBC's Tom Costello reports on the solar storm and shows off some aurora video.

The piece de resistance is this time-lapse video showing the aurora borealis above Sweden's Abisko National Park during a geomagnetic storm on March 7, offered by Chad Blakley from Lights Over Lapland on Vimeo. (Go full screen.) For more from Blakley, check out the Lights Over Lapland website.

More auroral glories:


Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.