The sun has been getting quite active lately, with one sun spot in particular giving off several explosive flares this week, and it could eventually bring some brilliant displays of the Northern Lights to the Pacific Northwest.
Since Monday, Sunspot AR1748 has already given off four "X-class" solar flares -- X being the most powerful class of flares that have potential to disrupt radio and satellite signals. In fact, that flare has given off more X-class flares than every other sunspot of the past year combined, according to spaceweather.com.
Up to this point, the spot has been on a part of the sun not directly facing Earth, so the flares have been directed away from our planet and not really giving us much of an effect.
But the sun is turning to where that sunspot is coming closer and closer to facing Earth -- already it's on the left edge as we look at it. Over the coming days the sunspot will travel closer and closer to the center of the sun relative to us, putting Earth more in the direct path of any more X-class flares the sunspot has up its sleeve.
Our atmosphere and the Earth's magnetic field protects us from any harmful effects of the solar flares, so there's no worries. Instead, solar flares can trigger dazzling displays of the Northern Lights to the polar regions, and if the storm is intense enough, bring those displays much further south than usual. In the past, major solar flares have brought rare aurora sightings to Arizona and Florida, and it only takes a moderately-strong storm to make them visible across the Northwest.
So keep an eye to Spaceweather.com as it's a fantastic site for tracking solar activity and letting you know when a solar storm is imminent. You'll also notice a link there to the planetary K index. I've found that it really takes a level of 7 on the 9-point scale before the lights are visible in the greater Seattle area. So if you see it's that high (or higher), might be a good time to go peek outside.
The lights are obviously on the northern horizon, so finding a spot with a clear view to the north is key. Also key: Getting away from city lights. Trying to view the lights from atop Queen Anne will be difficult. Even Alki Beach would be a stretch. Perhaps head to the foothills or the rural North Sound areas (bonus there that you get Seattle and Everett's lights behind you to the south). One of our frequent Northern Lights spotters, Liem Bahneman, has had reasonable success spotting the lights from the Mukilteo waterfront..
And then, of course, there is the weather. Forecasts indicate as of now that Saturday night will remain fairly cloudy but there is some hope for breaks in the clouds on Sunday and Monday night if a solar flare gets going soon. The middle of next week looks hit-and-miss for periods of overcast skies so we'll have to cross our fingers.
As always, if you do manage to get photos and/or video of the Northern Lights, we'd love to see them! You can post them to our YouNews page or email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Or, Tweet to @ScottSKOMO.)