“The day of the sun is like the day of a king. It is a promenade in the morning, a sitting on the throne at noon, a pageant in the evening.”
- Wallace Stevens, American poet, 1915
This past week the weather has been both spectacular and breathtaking. Perhaps a slight exaggeration for our weather, but 93,020,000 miles away – on the sun – a wave of strong solar flares erupted creating geomagnetic storms in the earth’s atmosphere. Our very warm weather here was only a coincidence – I promise. Although, in the northern regions of the U.S., night skies presented an awesome show for its spectators. On stage for several nights were the Northern Lights, scientifically known as the Aurora Borealis. This phenomenon is not uncommon in Alaska and Canada, but this year the magnitude of the solar activity made for more intense and varied coloring and a shift of these into lower latitudes. As if this wasn’t enough, there was also a new moon making the perfect backdrop of a dark sky.
This time found us in the northern most reaches of California, visiting Humboldt State University. According to the rain drenched locals, we were very fortunate to have dry weather. This year’s rain seems to be staying in the northwest. Hopes for a glimpse of the southern fringes of the “light show” went unfulfilled, but being in a grove of redwood trees while looking out over the Pacific Ocean was just fine.
Thanks to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., I was able to track the solar storm and watch the solar flares as they erupted. There are many reasons for the peaked interest in these occurrences. The most obvious are the visual ones, but flare-ups can also have serious negative impacts here on earth.
Let me explain the space science involved. On Jan. 24, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory detected an extreme ultraviolet flash from a solar flare, which was followed by a mass ejection of superheated gas and charged particles. Within 35 hours, at the speed of 3 million mph, it reached Earth. Amidst the “pretty lights” are lots of problems including damage to orbiting satellites, electrical disruptions to power grids and interference with GPS signals, radio communications and airline flights. These possibilities persist when the solar radiation is at its peak and the strongest. Typically the storm will last for a day or two until entirely passing the earth. According to space weather scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Fight Center in Maryland, “The storm could have been much worse … causing damage. We pretty much dodged the bullet. It was not a direct hit, only a glancing blow.” This storm is now over.
Meanwhile, once again gusty Santa Ana winds will blow across the foothills. Daytime highs will feel summer-like – 80s – and the nights will be more seasonal 40s. Predictions into week include significant cooling, increased cloudiness and a slight chance of precipitation (yes, rain!).
Next week: Ground hogs and weather prediction.
Sue Kilpatrick is a
Crescenta Valley resident and Official Skywarn Spotter for the National Weather Service.
Reach her at