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Northern Lights To Paint The Sky

Earth's protective magnetic field is being buffeted by a huge cloud of electrically charged particles blown off the sun Tuesday, raising the prospect of spectacular auroral displays – and, as CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood reports, possible power outages.

High frequency radio communications were disrupted by the initial solar flare Tuesday, and officials said Thursday several power companies, including a group that supplies New York, have reported current fluctuations.

But as of 3 p.m., no satellites were known to have been affected and no blackouts had been reported.

"There are going to be some effects, but it still has to pick up a bit before we see significant effects,” said Bill Murtagh, a space environment forecaster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo.

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“It doesn’t compare - yet - with the intensity of the March ‘89 storm that knocked out power in Quebec,” he added.

Two X-class solar flares were observed Tuesday, the first at 9:36 a.m. and the second around 11 a.m. The debris impacting Earth’s magnetic field Thursday is from a coronal mass ejection, or CME, associated with the second flare.

The shock wave from the explosion reached Earth early Thursday.

At 4:41 a.m. EDT, NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer satellite recorded a sudden jump in the density of positively charge protons streaming past in the solar wind. In a one-minute interval, the velocity of the solar wind jumped from 1.2 million mph to more than 1.6 million mph.

“It was certainly a strong impulse,” Murtagh told “It originated form the flare that occurred Tuesday morning. We were predicting activity to affect the geomagnetic field Thursday and it did come in this morning with a strong shock.”

The shock wave took about 41 hours to reach the Earth and as of 3 p.m. Thursday, “the geomagnetic field is undergoing major to severe storming,” Murtagh said. “We expect this to continue into the nighttime hours.”

“The meat of it’s here,” he said. “It’s a question of how long it’s going to be here.”

Coronal mass ejections amount to huge explosions on the sun that spew up to 10 billion tons of charged particles into space. Debris from ejections that happen to be aimed at Earth is, for the most part, deflected away from the surface by the planet’s magnetic field.

But the buffeting can compress the magnetic field, intensifying auroral displays. Such displays occur when charged particles spiraling along magnetic field lines toward the poles crash into atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Large CME’s can cause spectacular auroral displays visible as far south as Florida.

Murtagh said the effects of Tuesday’s eruption likely will be less dramatic.

“We have a quarter moon tonight and hat kind of hinders it if the aurora is somewhat weak,” he said. “But if we see major to severe storming then we should see aurora from New York to Pennsylvania, the great lakes, across the mid northern latitudes.”

Strong storms also can affect the performance of satellites, disrupt radio communications and cause sporadic electrical problems on Earth. In March 1989, a solar storm knocked out electric power across the Canadian province of Quebec and destroyed a large transformer in New Jersey.

“Solar flares and CMEs occur whenever there’s a rapid, large-scale change in the sun’s magnetic field,” David Hathaway, a solar physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in a news release.

“The solar active region that produced the eruptions [on June 6] had a complicated magnetic configuration - oppositely directed magnetic fields were seen right next to each other,” he said.

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