Friday, 9 March 2012

Spectacular aurora over New Zealand last night

I was so disappointed not to be in New Zealand last night for two reason: first, my daughter Ruia gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Olivia. They are both very healthy. And second would have been to have seen a rare heavenly experience of Auroras which lit up the South Island sky as the solar storm got much stronger.

Having spent 13 months in Antarctica with 3 other people when I was 22 years of age, it was the auroae 'that gladdened the eye' during those five months of a pitch black winter.

To watch aurorae dancing, and snaking across the night sky is a wonder to behold. Here is an extract from a poem I wrote on the Aurora

It was the Aurora that gladdened the eye
A frenetic serpent that snaked the sky
Pouring mellowed colours that sparkled rime
On icy pendants soon to sublime.
Yes high above towers all form
Soon will come the first blush of dawn
My life has changed my dash is done
O welcome the King, O welcome the sun

Canterbury student Koen Broekema who took the photograph above of the rays of colour from Lincoln, on the outskirts of Christchurch.

He said the auroras were visible for about five to 10 minutes about 9.40pm yesterday.

''I just went outside to have a quick look and it was all over the sky. It was pretty amazing,'' Broekema said.

''I didn't know what else to do, but to take the pictures.''

No power outages or other worldwide technological disturbances were reported from the solar storm that started to peter out overnight.

Solar storms, which can't hurt people, can disturb electric grids, GPS systems, and satellites. They can also spread colourful Southern Lights, as the latest storm did.

And more storms are coming. The US federal government's Space Weather Prediction Centre said the same area of the sun erupted again Friday (NZ time), with a milder storm expected to reach Earth early Monday.

The latest storm started with a flare on Tuesday, and had been forecast to be strong and direct, with one scientist predicting it would blast Earth directly like a punch in the nose. But it arrived Friday morning at mild levels — at the bottom of the 1-5 scale of severity. It strengthened to a level 3 for several hours overnight as the storm neared its end. Scientists say that's because the magnetic part of the storm flipped direction.

"We were watching the boxer, expecting the punch. It didn't come," physicist Terry Onsager, at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's space weather centre, said.

"It hit us with the back of the hand as it was retreating."

Forecasters can predict a solar storm's speed and strength, but not the direction of its magnetic field. If it is northward, like Earth's, the jolt of energy flows harmlessly around the planet, Onsager said. A southerly direction can cause power outages and other problems.

Friday's storm came in northerly, but overnight switched to the fierce southerly direction. The magnetic part of the storm spent several hours at that strong level, so combined with strong radiation and radio levels, it turned out to be the strongest solar storm since November 2004, said NOAA lead forecaster Bob Rutledge.

US skywatchers reported to NOAA shimmering colourful auroras in Michigan, Wisconsin and Seattle — areas that don't normally see the Northern Lights — Rutledge said. Other space weather enthusiasts reported auroras in Alaska, Minnesota, and North Dakota and in Australia and New Zealand.

 "Up north, they got a great display," Nasa solar physicist David Hathaway said.

By early this morning the storm was essentially over, forecasters said. But they had a new flare from the same sunspot region to watch. Preliminary forecasts show it to be slightly weaker than the one that just hit, arriving somewhere around 7pm Sunday (NZ time).

The storms are part of the sun's normal 11-year cycle, which is supposed to reach a peak next year.

"This is what we're expecting as we approach solar maximum," Onsager said. "We should be seeing this for the next few years now."

Those in the south of New Zealand should be able to see spectacular aurora lights tonight as the largest solar flare in five years reaches Earth.

This extreme ultraviolet wavelength image provided by NASA shows a solar flare. It's heading toward Earth and could disrupt power grids, GPS and airplane flights. Photo / AP, NASA

Astronomer Dr Grant Christie from the Stardome Observatory said the particles from the solar flare should reach the earth around midday, New Zealand time.

"The actual flare occurred yesterday. It blew off quite a lot of material off the sun. That's called a coronal mass ejection. Typically they weigh about 10 billion tonnes of material. That goes out into space with a lot of force like a shotgun blast and satellites up there now monitoring the sun can monitor its trajectory in three dimensions.

"It's going to be a glancing blow to the earth."

Dr Christie said it is a class X5.4 flare, the strongest in more than five years.

An X1.3 flare occurred soon after the yesterday's X5.4. A solar flare on January 27 was a X1.7 flare.

"This one is quite a lot stronger than the one in January," he said.

"Any class X flare has got potential hazard to satellites, power grids, and aircraft navigation near the poles. So there are alerts out for that."

He said satellite operators will be rotating their satellites so that the hard back-end of the satellite is facing the sun to shield the electronics from the particles.

Dr Christie said the flare will only have an effect on flights over either of the poles.

"I understand airlines simply redirect those flights to avoid the hazard. The impact it has is not so much the radiation on passengers, it's the possibility of electronic disruptions to communications and navigations."

"Because the earth's magnetic field channels high energy particles onto the polar regions, which is why you see the aurora at the poles, there is much more intense electrical disruption at the polar regions than there are in our regions.

"Therefore the polar regions are where you expect to see more activity and therefore increased hazard."

Anywhere south of Auckland people should be able to see enhanced aurora over the next couple of nights.

"To actually get a good view anywhere in south Otago, Southland, Canterbury ... the further south you are the better. In Auckland you see the very top of the aurora, it's so far south a strong one will just peak over the horizon, it will look like a red glow in the south. As you get further south you will see colours like green appearing.

"It is a full moon as well so that will dim the impact."

Dr Christie said a big sun spot group, named AR1429, was the source of the solar flares.

"It's large, it's something like 10 times the size the earth would project ... nearly the size of Jupiter.

"You should be able to see it if you have the right sort of filter. I wouldn't encourage people to do it, but you can get safe solar viewers, from places like Stardome and the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand."

"It's not to say this will be the last flare, it's still possible there will be another eruption.


Marja said...

Oh O can't get over it This photo made in Lincoln? so closeby and I didn't see it sh...I thought it was going to be in Invercargill The sky looks beautifull Oh I would so have loved to see it.

Marja said...

Congratulations with the brith of your grandchild Bob

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Thanks for your congratulations. It is a shame you did not see the aurorae last night, for it looks so spectacular.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
Please pass on my hearty congrats to Ruia and Gavin. Their hospitality still stands out for me.
I have been fortunate enough to be deep in the Boundary Waters and be treated to the wonderful spectacle of the Northern Lights. Heading back home in July and a few old mates are trying to entice me into a canoe up there once again.
Had a lovely evening and dinner with Pohangina Pete this weekend Bob. As usual your name popped up a few times :) - Pete passes on his regards.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Thanks for the congrats and will pass on to Ruia and Gav. Yes the northern lights are spectacular and embodied in Arctic legends and poetry. Great you caught up with Pohangina Pete. Give him my best.


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