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Now that hurricane season is winding down, a different storm season is ramping up. Originating 93 million miles away from Earth, solar storms – produced by the sun – have both stunning and potentially dangerous effects here on Earth.
“The sun provides us with life, with heat and light. But periodically, is emits a blast of radiation that affects us here on earth and it can occur in different forms. When it occurs it can affect the technology that we rely on here on Earth,” says Bill Murtagh, program coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center.
The Space Weather Prediction Center is a 24/7 operation that is constantly staring at the sun. Using sensors on satellites and on Earth, it looks for sunspots on the sun, which at times can be as much as 10 times the size of Earth. Murtagh forecasts space weather, just as meteorologists forecast the weather on Earth.
When those sunspots erupt, they can send a blast of energy toward Earth known as a solar storm. That’s when we get the gorgeous glow of the aurora borealis, or northern lights.
The sunspots appear darker because they are cooler. They are where the magnetic field is the strongest. These magnetic field lines will sometimes cross and get tangled – eventually bursting.
There are seasons when the sun becomes more active. During this very active time, sunspots will appear on the surface of the sun and erupt more frequently.
This active season itself is somewhat predictable, as the sun’s magnetic field flips polarity over an 11-year cycle.
“The sun has negative and positive polarity, just like Earth. During this 11-year period, it does a reversal of the polarity. So negative becomes positive and positive becomes negative. During the middle of that process and transition, that’s when those sunspots emerge. So we go through a process when we are in the middle of this transition we get lots of sunspots and lots of space weather,” says Murtagh.
We have been in a period of solar minimum – the least amount of sunspots – for the last three to four years and now we are starting to come out of that.
The busy season for sunspots is beginning, meaning more opportunities to see the northern and southern lights, which Murtagh says should peak between 2023 and 2028.
Meteorologists know during December, January and February, you’re not going to get much – if any – hurricane activity. That’s why there’s hurricane season. Same for us, says Murtagh. We know during the solar maximum, we will see a lot more activity.
The two geomagnetic storms that occurred last week were level 3 storms; they produced stunning images from both ends of our planet.
“When the eruption does occur, the coronal mass ejections that cause the northern lights, once they leave the sun, we have the ability to detect them, measure their size and speed and predict when they are going to get here with relative success,” says Murtagh.
Murtagh says the bigger eruptions are the fastest, getting to Earth in as little as 16 hours. But the smaller ones travel slower, and can take several days to get here.
Forecasting geomagnetic storms on a 93 million-mile journey has its challenges, but he says their forecasts are always improving.
“Some of the big ones, you can bet your mortgage on it that you will see the aurora, but the smaller ones are a little tougher for forecast,” says Murtagh.
While the aurora is such a magical phenomenon that it tops bucket lists all over the world, there’s also hidden dangers in space weather that can affect all of us.
“The sunspots are localized stressed magnetic structures on the sun that have the potential to erupt and release energy in the form of solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and when that occurs that radiation makes it’s way to Earth and affects a lot of technology,” says Murtagh.
He forecasts solar flare radio blackouts as well as solar radiation storms. These storms can be potentially dangerous to not only satellites and astronauts, but Earthlings as well.
“This radiation is the stuff that concerns us with the astronauts and a big concern for us as we press ahead with our goals to go back to the moon,” says Murtagh.
And now that space exploration has entered into the private sector, many more eyeballs beyond NASA are focused on space weather and the hazards it could create.
Radiation storms could damage or destroy satellites, and they even have an impact on airlines.
“For many people now who fly from the US to Asia, a lot of these flights go polar. These energetic particles, these radiation storms, when it hits Earth, these particles will slow down the magnetic field lines and concentrate in the high latitudes near the southern and northern pole,” says Murtagh.
While Earth’s magnetic field acts as a cocoon to protect us from this harmful radiation, during these storms, radiation can sometimes still get through.
Murtagh says because of this, the airlines will reroute the flight to avoid the poles or fly at a lower altitude to mitigate the radiation threat.
Space weather can also disrupt transformers and the power grid, temporarily impacting an entire region.
In March 1989, space weather caused the entire power grid to go out, affecting the entire city of Montreal as well as the province of Quebec. NASA describes this day as “The day the sun brought darkness.”
“Recovery time would be measured in hours or days typically. However, If we sustained large damage to the high voltage transformers, then that could lead to recovery measured in weeks or months,” says Murtagh.
While most eyes are strictly on the weather from the clouds, the weather that comes from 93 million miles away is many times just as important.
More rain and snow for the West
Back down a little closer to Earth, another series of atmospheric rivers will push into the US West this week, giving more rain and snow to the drought-stricken west.
These plumes of moisture provide the majority of the annual rainfall to the West, but could create flooding issues as well as mudflows to areas that are burn-scarred from wildfires.
“Isolated flooding is possible, especially in recent burn scars, but again most of the rain and snow pack are welcome for the drought plagued West,” says CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen.
This atmospheric river event doesn’t look to be as powerful as last week’s, but will still bring a soaking rain and plenty of snow.
The first atmospheric river event, “a level 3 of 5 atmospheric river is forecast to target parts of California and Oregon over the next couple of days,” says CNN’s Hennen.
The first event will run through Tuesday, with 30-40 mph winds possible outside of Seattle. Winds of 25 mph are expected around Portland, Oregon, as this system moves onshore.
Rainfall amounts of one to two inches are likely, with snowfall totals up to a foot through some of the mountain passes.
In the higher elevations in Northern California, they could see as much as 18 inches of snow from this system.
The second event will arrive later this week and there is more uncertainty with the timing and impacts.
It will be primarily focused on Washington and Oregon, not bringing California as much rain.
The second system will be a level 3 out of 5 on the atmospheric river scale.
The same system that brought coastal flooding to Charleston could become our next tropical system
With only three weeks left in hurricane season, we are nearing the finish line of this busy and historic season.
The National Hurricane Center has placed a 20% chance of development within the next five days for an area of low pressure a couple hundred miles off the coast of North Carolina.
This is the same low pressure system that brought coastal flooding to the Southeast this past week, especially around the Charleston, South Carolina, area.
The coastal low brought strong onshore winds, increasing water levels in Charleston Harbor up to major flood stage.
As a result, streets were closed until the water was able to recede.
The low has moved well away from the region, but could still become our next tropical system.
“By early this weekend, the low could acquire some subtropical characteristics while it moves eastward or east-northeastward over the open waters of the central Atlantic Ocean,” says the National Hurricane Center (NHC).
If this area of low pressure gets a name, it would be the first name on the new subsequent list to be used, which would be Adria. We have already used up all the hurricane names this season. Wanda was the last name on the list, which was used last week.
With 21 named storms, including seven that became hurricanes, the 2021 season has been an especially active one.
Four of those hurricanes became major hurricanes (category three or higher).
Many in the Midwest could see their first snow of the season
The same storm system bringing rain and snow to the Pacific Northwest through Tuesday could bring some areas in the Midwest their first snow of the season.
“The main focus for this period will be a deep storm system poised to impact much of the eastern US Wednesday into Thursday which could bring the season`s first accumulating snow to northern parts of Minnesota,” said the National Weather Service office in the Twin Cities.
By Thursday and Friday, the system will cross over much of the eastern half of the country, bringing snow, rain and storms.
Most areas will start out as rain. Then once the cold front passes, snow will develop behind the front, along with cold temperatures and windy conditions.
Much of Minnesota and Michigan will see snow from Thursday evening and lasting for most of the day on Friday. Snow will even fall in northern Iowa and parts of Indiana and Illinois, including Chicago.
Minneapolis could drop into the 30s on Friday morning and not get out of the 30s for the entire weekend.
The storm will bring all rain to the rest of the Midwest to Gulf Coast, and the rain will march east. The rain will make it to the Eastern Seaboard on Friday, bringing rain to big cities in the Northeast.
Along with the rain will be the potential for thunderstorms.
Rainfall totals should stay under two inches for the entire eastern half of the country, but that could change as the forecast plays out during the week.
Regardless, it will make for dreary conditions to end the week.
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