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Home / Science / The media had a chance on Northern Lights on Saturday night. A bad prognosis was poorly communicated.

The media had a chance on Northern Lights on Saturday night. A bad prognosis was poorly communicated.

Auroras illuminates the night sky on February 28 in Finse, southern Norway. (Heiko Young / EPA-EFE / REX)

For Skywatcher in the United States until In Northern Virginia and Illinois, the last Saturday night was memorable.

Except … that was not it.

For days, local and national media had announced an anticipated presentation of the ethereal aurora borealis – more commonly known as the Northern Lights.

A plasma blast ejected from the sunspot region AR2736 – a bounce on the sun pulsing with magnetic energy pulses – seemed to be aimed at the earth. The high-energy particles were seen by the Space Weather Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which on Wednesday raised the observation of the potential of a moderate geomagnetic storm on Earth.

The explosion, known as coronal mass ejection, has been hurled a burst of protons and electrons toward Earth into space. When these charged particles bombard Earth's upper atmosphere, the planet's magnetic field can potentially convert harmful energy into visible light. That's the Aurora. The more intense the sun's rays, the farther south the northern lights dip. In rare cases, the Lower 48 is treated with her mystic emerald dance.

USA Today advertises the "rare chance to see the Northern Lights," while insiders claim they could shimmer as deep as Chicago and New York. NBC News announced that the Aurora Borealis had a chance to reach "far south".

But heaven never did it. Who knows how many people shiver under a bright moon and stare upward until the cold weather trumps their patience. The solar blast not hit The earth hit the earth until Sunday night, and even then triggered no geomagnetic storm that triggered the northern lights.

Why the forecast for the destruction? It was a combination of scientific uncertainty and bad media hype.

"Space Weather Forecast There were terrestrial weather forecasts in the 1960s," wrote Space Weather Experts Tamitha Skov in an e-mail . She explained the challenges of observing solar storms and why it is so difficult to predict their impact

"Essentially, we have something like a tornado siren as they predicted these events," she wrote. "We see how they can start from the sun and estimate their initial speed for a very small window of time as they are started. Why such a small time window? Unfortunately, it's the only time we really see her good enough to take measurements. "

The SOHO – or Solar and Heliospheric Observatory – is a spaceship that has been looking into the sun since 1996. It provides these first images, which scientists like to support Skov in modeling solar flares. A similar role is also played by the Solar Dynamics Observatory introduced in 2011. But that's in terms of useful real-time data. Other observation platforms can send higher resolution images, but when they reach Earth, the solar storm has already hit – or missed. And the trust is initially low, if one wants to make predictions only on the basis of satellite imagery.

We will not receive the next data until a solar storm reaches orbiting satellites such as DSCOVR. These platforms provide live monitoring of a number of parameters. But their proximity to the Earth limits utility and provides only one hour of warning of the solar storm. It's like having a buoy at the end of a dock to measure an incoming tsunami.

"After [they launch]solar storms are not visible to us meteorologists until a few days later, when they pass by our satellite monitors near Earth," explained Skov. "This means that the distance of 92 million miles between the Sun and Earth is an observation zone when it comes to real-time forecasts. We just can not see how far the solar storm has wandered or what he has experienced on his way. "

Skov shows how difficult it is to fill the void. "Imagine, you wanted to predict [the ETA of] someone who travels across the US to Washington DC," she said. "It's about highways, back roads, rush hour traffic, collisions, bad weather … you name it. All you have to do is estimate their arrival time, how fast they drove out of the driveway by car. "

It's no surprise that accurate forecasts of space weather and polar activity are hard to come by. But Skov, the inventor of the popular site SpaceWeatherWoman.com is trying to change that. She has built a fan base of 50,000 followers, which she taps for current observations from around the world. She emphasized the importance of citizen scientists, who with their help in short-term major events in the short term better Aurora predictions.

But forecast hurdles were not the only thing that led to the collapse of Saturday. The media hype also aroused hope in regions where the lights would not have been seen even with full realization of the forecast.

The Space Weather Prediction Center called for a G2 storm. What does that mean? An index used to measure geomagnetic activity should be at a scale of 0-9 + at 6. This happens on average every 11 years in 360 days. Do we see the Northern Lights every week in the adjacent United States? No.

But the media came along, probably because the sun was quiet lately. It's just as the first snow of a season is remarkable. Snow is nothing special, but any break in a quiet spell becomes a message.

"I think the media overestimates the likelihood that Aurora so often intersects the likelihood of Aurora that their readers, if they do it right, are simply totally impressed. "Wrote Joe Kunches, space weather expert for Capital Weather Gang . "The phenomenon is so conspicuous, so brilliant – like seeing Elvis. Unforgettable.

Theoretically, a G2 storm – one of the levels predicted last weekend – would scatter lights around the US / Canada border. But the operative word is visible and seldom sees it as easily as it may seem.

"They need a dark, backlit sky, a dull moon, a few clouds, and they have to be" the right time to see, "Kunches said.

And most of the time, the eye-catching images you see from locations in the US get a little help from the camera. Long exposures can capture a faint glow of aurora that would be imperceptible to the naked eye.

But occasionally we can be lucky in the middle latitudes.

"I do not want people to think you'll never see Aurora if you live in the US," Skov wrote. "That would be just as wrong as the hype surrounding this latest storm."

On June 22, 2015, a geomagnetic storm climbed to a G4 with geomagnetic KP indices between 8 and 9 of 9. Visible North The lights fell south into southern New England, making white and green shimmering curtains for an hour.

A solar storm in 1859, known as the Carrington event, brought the Northern Lights to Hawaii and Florida! In Washington, DC, it was reportedly possible to read a newspaper at midnight, lit by the green waves above. If a storm of similar magnitude took place again today, it could lead to a devastating stream that paralyzes the earth's electricity grid.

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