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60% chance of solar storms, Northern Lights tonight

A solar flare.
A solar flare.

Yesterday, the Sun erupted its first X-class flare of 2014, which sent out a waves of charged atomic particles called a coronal mass ejection (CME) into space and toward Earth. All the action was captured on camera in an amazing video posted online by So, with blast of energy moving out into space, many are asking the question: what does this mean for us here on Earth?

Answer: according to NOAA, a 60% chance of geomagnetic storms, and Northern Lights, today when the blast reaches Earth.

The aurora are caused when the energized particles from the Sun come into contact with Earth's upper atmosphere. When the charged energy hits Earth, the particles react and the atoms/molecules in Earth's upper atmosphere give off the photons we see as the Northern Lights. Why are the lights different colors? Each individual atom gives off a different glow when excited by the incoming solar wind.

For us living in the Northern hemisphere, auroras are common in high latitudes such as Alaska, Canada, the Scandinavian countries, and other such high-latitude places. For those at mid latitudes, such as the Northern continental United States (like Cleveland's 41 degrees North latitude), auroras don't find their way into these skies very often, but when they do, they are often dazzling.

In May, 2005, I saw a stunning display of auroras that ranged from blue-violet overhead to green curtains near the horizon. Another dramatic display of Northern Lights took place over Ohio in 2011.

As for the CME, impact in the form of a direct hit is expected for today, which means that there is as as good a chance as any for seeing aurora tonight, wherever you live, so keep an eye on the sky tonight if things are looking clear where you live.

As always, would-be sky watchers in the Cleveland area should be sure to keep an eye on the Cleveland weather forecast and, for hour-by-hour cloud predictions, the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock. Live somewhere else? Find a clock and see if it will be clear near you.

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