St. Patrick's Day Solar Storm Sets Off Green Northern Lights

 / Updated  / Source: Space.com

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A massive solar storm is bombarding Earth now, and it could supercharge the northern lights to offer a better chance of seeing dancing green auroras just in time for St. Patrick's Day, weather permitting.

The surprisingly strong solar storm — ranked as a G4 geomagnetic storm by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center — could trigger brilliant auroras for people in dark areas as far south as Tennessee on Tuesday night if the space storm continues. The storm began at about 10 a.m. ET today.

The storm was given a "severe" rating of G4 on NOAA's 1-to-5 scale for geomagnetic effects. It's not a danger to satellites or astronauts in space, but it could affect GPS and radio signals on Earth, space weather scientists said during a teleconference. The solar storm has not been linked to any power outages on the planet, they added. [See photos of the biggest solar flares of 2015]

"This is one of two severe geomagnetic storms that we have experienced during this current solar cycle," said Thomas Berger, director of the Space Weather Prediction Center.

The G4 storm is the result of two large eruptions that left the sun on Sunday. Two huge explosions of solar plasma, known as coronal mass ejections, joined up while speeding toward Earth to create a larger solar storm. The active region on the sun that spawned the eruptions is currently rotating out of Earth's view.

NOAA officials expect that the solar storm should continue for at least the next several hours, but these types of storms are difficult to predict.

Image: Graphic showing where the northern lights are likely visible due to solar storm
A computer-generated graphic from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center shows the region where northern lights are expected to be seen due to a strong geomagnetic storm that swept past Earth on Tuesday. The colors correspond to the probability of seeing the auroral lights.NOAA / Ovation

If the storm does continue, it's possible that people in northern Europe will have a great view of auroras tonight. United States stargazers might also be able to see the light show when darkness falls, assuming the storm continues.

Some skywatchers have already reported amazing views of the northern lights.

"We have heard of some very vivid sightings of aurora before the sun rose today," Brent Gordon, the Space Weather Prediction Center's space weather services branch chief, said during the teleconference. "Aurora sightings were mainly confined to the northern tier of the United States — Minnesota, Wisconsin, both North and South Dakota as well as Washington state … and of course Alaska as well."

— Miriam Kramer, Space.com

This is a condensed version of a report from Space.com. Read the full report. Follow Miriam Kramer on Twitter. Follow Space.com on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

For more of David McColm's photography, check out his website, Twitter account and Facebook page. If you take an amazing photo of the northern lights from the March 17 geomagnetic storm and you'd to share it for a possible story or image gallery, send images and comments to Space.com managing editor Tariq Malik at spacephotos@space.com.

The online Slooh Community Observatory will webcast live views of the aurora from Iceland on Tuesday night starting at 6 p.m. ET. You can watch it directly through Slooh or live on Space.com.

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