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FAST AND FURIOUS: Quenching Your Thirst For Real Time Solar and Geomagnetic Storm Information


LATEST IMAGE: Aurora borealis above Yellowknife, Northwest Territories taken at 23:20 MST on March 8, 2012

By James Pugsley
Astronomy North

(YELLOWKNIFE, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES) Last week the geomagnetic conditions above Yellowknife were quiet, with periods of unsettled activity in the hours before and after local midnight.

Boy, how quickly things can change.

On Tuesday at approximately 5:30 p.m. MST, the massive sunspot group AR1429 unleashed a powerful X-Class Flare (X5.4 to be exact) towards Earth. There was also a similar X1.3 event soon after the major burst. As a result, on Thursday morning the geomagnetic field was set for a G2 or G3 (Severe) Geomagnetic Storm capable of flooding North American skies with auroras for 24-48 hours.

Turns out that despite the direct impact, this storm was much weaker than expected (G2) and didn’t occur until much later in the day on March 8, primarily

Satellite environment data March 8-11

because the incoming Coronal Mass Ejection held the same magnetic field orientation as the Earth’s magnetic field. This meant that the warning of intense global activity, and subsequent explosion of media attention, was met with a storm that was ultimately unable to achieve its fullest potential because of a select group of variables that are not known until the solar wind actually reaches the planet’s magnetic field. Indeed, some mysteries of the aurora remain fully intact.

Before the Thursday event, let’s not forget that Monday’s activity featured five M-Class events from AR1429, and on Tuesday night night most of Canada witnessed a G2 (Moderate) Geomagnetic Storm after weekend flare event from 1429 sent just enough plasma in our direction to spark a minor storm.

(Insert deep breath sound here)

It kinda makes you wonder how anyone could possibly stay on top of this stuff. Well, thankfully this is an age of technology that has fostered the profound advancement of social media and global communication systems, an effort that has coincidentally (and somewhat ironically) resulted in both an unquenchable thirst for instant information and unprecedented access to quality scientific information at the exact same time.

So notably, when we add the fact that solar storms and geomagnetic storms are arguably the biggest naturally occurring events that are conducive to real time consumption, there is reason to believe that humanity is about to enhance its understanding of the Sun-Earth relationship like never before.

Scientists, amateur astronomers, insomniacs, information junkies and Tweeps rejoice. After all, what better way to quench your unquenchable thirst for information than by chugging geomagnetic field data or slurping on high definition footage of solar and auroral explosions in real time?

For those who know what I’m talking about, you probably already have a long list of bookmarks related to space weather (and hopefully AuroraMAX and Astronomy North are on that list). For those who are not quite aware of the volume of real time space weather information that is available for human consumption, here are some starting points and tips that will help you stay ahead of your thirst as solar and geomagnetic storms unfold:

  • Follow reliable space weather websites such as the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Centre that provide up to the minute solar wind and magnetic field data;
  • Keep an eye on the solar wind speed and proton density, as shown on the top left of the www.spaceweather.com home page and other sites. This data serves as a the barometer for aurora enthusiasts that want to know what is happening close to Earth in near real time. Overall, spaceweather.com is a  good source of information, but for some unknown reason the writing is focused on Scandinavian skies;
  • Watch what the solar enthusiasts are saying. When it comes to monitoring Solar Flares, Coronal Mass Ejections, Geomagnetic Storms and Sunspots, few websites that compare to www.solarham.com;
  • Brace for auroras after the CME impact. To figure out when the impact has occurred, watch for spikes in activity on the NOAA ACE real time solar wind plots;
  • For Canadian geomagnetic data and forecast information, check out www.spaceweather.ca for the latest regional updates, and watch for AuroraMAX Alerts on Twitter.
  • And there’s no better way to confirm if an aurora is visible in the skies above Yellowknife, check out the AuroraMAX Online Observatory!
  • If you miss the show, you can always check out the AuroraMAX Replays or our Facebook page to see what happened in the skies above Yellowknife; and
  • If you’re feeling charged up even after the activity has calmed down, go for a fast and furious tour of these websites to see what the conditions are like when nothing is going on. It’s good practice for the next time storms are in the forecast.

Stay thirsty, my friends.

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