Solar flares have been popping up like dandelions the past few days. Some of the explosions have blasted millions of tons of subatomic particles in Earth's direction. Space weather scientists predict that material will start arriving Tuesday afternoon, May 25th. There's a good probability it will make it past our planet's magnetic defenses, enter the upper atmosphere and spark a moderate (G2) geomagnetic storm Tuesday night through Wednesday morning, May 25-26.
G2 storms can unleash auroras across New York, the Upper Midwest, North Dakota and even Washington State, not to mention Canada, Siberia and northern Europe. From places like Michigan's Upper Peninsula and northern Minnesota, the aurora can easily cover half the northern sky with arcs and dancing rays.
Active Region 2824, a small group of sunspots in the sun's northern hemisphere, has been behind the excitement, releasing one flare after another like a teenager tossing lit firecrackers. For a 24-hour period beginning on May 22, the region exploded with 10 small C- class flares and 2 moderate M- class flares. These produced multiple, overlapping particle blasts called CMEs or coronal mass ejections. You can see them animated here. With so much coming our way, it's a safe bet we'll see some sign of northern lights Tuesday night into Wednesday morning (May 25-26).
Unfortunately, the Full Flower Moon will be shining all night. This is the same moon we'll see eclipsed Wednesday at dawn. You can easily guess what impact a bright moon has on the aurora. I can tell you this — it doesn't help! But don't let that stop you from looking. I'll never forget the aurora of August 26, 2018, which occurred during a full moon. While the lights weren't obvious at first glance, when you looked more closely, the sky was absolutely crazy with activity. Of course, moonlight reduced the show's intensity, but it was still memorable.
That might happen again Tuesday night, so be sure to carefully look around the sky. Cameras record these moonlit auroras much better than the eye, so if you have a DSLR and tripod, snap on a wide-angle lens and take a photo now and again to check for aurora. Set the ISO to 400 and start with a 30-second exposure at f/2.8 to f/4 for starters. Back off to 20 seconds if your images are overexposed or increase the ISO to 800 if underexposed.
Since the eclipse starts at 4:45 a.m. CDT (3:45 a.m. MDT and 2:45 a.m. PDT) and the best time for aurora-watching is typically from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. local time, I have the sneaky feeling that a lot of us won't be getting much sleep that night!
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.