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Northern lights may be visible across Northern California this weekend. Why are they so active right now?


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By Ashley Strickland |  CNN

A series of solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the sun have the potential to create dazzling auroras that may be seen as far south as Alabama and Northern California but also disrupt communications on Earth tonight and over the weekend, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

The center, which is a division of the National Weather Service, observed conditions of an extreme geomagnetic storm at 6:54 p.m. ET on Friday evening, reaching a level 5 out of 5 severity. The last time a solar storm of this magnitude reached Earth was in October 2003, resulting in power outages in Sweden and damaged power transformers in South Africa, according to the center.

Signs of a severe geomagnetic storm, or level 4, were first observed by scientists at the center at 12:37 p.m. ET, when a major disturbance was detected in Earth’s magnetic field. Previously, the center issued a geomagnetic storm watch on Thursday evening, the first such watch issued since January 2005.

Photos: Aurora borealis from the Bay Area and far beyond

But the forecast was upgraded after scientists observed G5, or extreme geomagnetic storm, conditions Friday evening.

As the sun nears the peak of activity in its 11-year cycle, known as solar maximum, later this year, researchers have observed increasingly intense solar flares erupting from the fiery orb.

Increased solar activity causes auroras that dance around Earth’s poles, known as the northern lights, or aurora borealis, and southern lights, or aurora australis. When the energized particles from coronal mass ejections reach Earth’s magnetic field, they interact with gases in the atmosphere to create different colored light in the sky.

The Space Weather Prediction Center tracked multiple strong flares emitting from a large cluster of sunspots on the solar surface since Wednesday. The cluster is 17 times the diameter of Earth.

Scientists also observed at least seven coronal mass ejections, or large clouds of ionized gas called plasma and magnetic fields that erupt from the sun’s outer atmosphere, releasing from the sun in the direction of Earth. These significant outbursts are expected to continue through Sunday.

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Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment

      

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