A 'cannibal' is on its way from the sun, but don't panic: You might see the northern lights
Several solar flares and coronal mass ejections have erupted from the sun
Over the past few days, the sun has been alive with a flurry of activity, with sunspots spewing out magnetic energy and releases of fast-moving particles called coronal mass ejections (CMEs).
The good news is that for us here on Earth, and particularly in Canada, it means a geomagnetic storm and the increased possibility of catching the northern lights.
While the sun is always active, it has an 11-year cycle with a minimum and a maximum of activity. During the solar maximum — which we have just begun — more sunspots can be seen across the sun's surface.
These sunspots are cooler regions that appear black when seen through solar telescopes. But they're more than just a little black spot on the sun: these regions are an entanglement of magnetic fields that can sometimes erupt with a solar flare. And very often, they are followed by a coronal mass ejection, a huge burst of charged particles that are carried along the solar wind.
If Earth is in the path of these charged particles, they can interact with our own magnetic field and then with molecules in the upper atmosphere, which then gives us the northern lights, or aurora borealis.
Right now, there are seven groups of sunspots across the face of the sun. On Tuesday, NASA recorded that one of the groups unleashed more than 17 flares, varying from weak to medium events. And, as a result, two large CMEs were burped out from the sun, travelling at roughly 1,500 kilometres per second.
WATCH | Solar flares erupt on the surface of the sun from March 28–30
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggests that the second CME will overtake the first, merging to become one single "cannibal CME." It is forecast to reach Earth at roughly 11 p.m. ET on Thursday.
But there may be several days of increased activity.
At roughly 2 p.m. ET Wednesday, the sun released an X-class flare. X flares are the strongest type and are typically measured on a range of one to nine, though more powerful ones have been recorded throughout history.
A 1,2-punch! Our Sun takes aim at Earth with back-to-back <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/solarstorms?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#solarstorms</a>! NOAA & NASA predictions show the storms merging, boosting their impact. Arrival is early on March 31. Expect <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/aurora?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#aurora</a> deep into mid-latitudes, with <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/GPS?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#GPS</a> reception & <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/amateur?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#amateur</a> radio issues on Earth's nightside! <a href="https://t.co/5290hGBhTA">pic.twitter.com/5290hGBhTA</a>—@TamithaSkov
How to see it
It's important to remember that the sun doesn't always play nicely with predictions, however. The CME could arrive earlier or later. It also may not interact as strongly with our magnetic field as much as they are predicting.
But that being said, definitely keep an eye out for northern lights over the next couple of days.
WATCH | What happens during a "cannibal coronal mass ejection"
While places in northern Canada, like Yellowknife, Whitehorse or Fort Smith, N.W.T., frequently see the northern lights, powerful storms like the one that this is predicted to be means that areas much farther south may get a chance to see them, too.
For those in places like Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal, the aurora may appear closer to the horizon, so it's important to get to an area away from city lights with a good view of the northern horizon. Heading further north increases your chances.
If you want to try to find out how good your chances are of catching the northern lights, you can check out NASA's Space Weather Prediction Center's site.
They provide a scale called the Kp Index, which measures geomagnetic activity on a scale from zero to 10. For cities like Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg, a Kp index of four — or even lower sometimes — means you'll likely be able to see the northern lights. But for cities like Toronto and Vancouver, you'll need a higher index, likely closer to six or seven.
You can also check out sites like Spaceweather.com and Spaceweatherlive.com.
You might also try setting up a camera to photograph the northern lights, as cameras are more sensitive than the human eye. Try a 15-second exposure using an ISO of 1600 at f/4 or lower.