Category Archives: aurora

The Minor Storm of May 13, 2024

We had a minor geomagnetic storm on Monday just after the major storm on Saturday that everyone saw. This minor storm launched a CME caused by an X-5.8 solar flare on Friday, but despite early estimates it might rival the major storm, it was a glancing blow to Earth’s magnetic field and caused no aurora over much of the Lower-48 States. Many had hoped they would get to see an aurora in Maryland and other mid-latitude locations but the storm was too week to be seen in most states that had enjoyed the Great Storm of May 10-11.

Nevertheless, my DIY magnetometers did show some life for this Kp=6 event as shown below. This time I had three different magnetometers operating. The top numbers are the 3-hour Kp indices. The red trace is from the Fredricksberg Magnetic Observatory. The black trace is from the RM3100-Arduino system. The blue trace is from the Differential Hall Sensoe system. The green trace os from the Differential Photocell Magnetometer. The two dips marked with ‘Sq’ are the diurnal Sq variations, which were recorded by all magnetometers.

All three designs are described in detail in my book Exploring Space Weather with DIY Magnetometers,

The Great Storm of May 10, 2024

We just passed through the biggest ‘solar storm’ in the last 20 years caused by the massive naked-eye sunspot group called AR-3664. Its size was 15 times the diameter of Earth and rivaled the size of the famous Carrington sunspot of September, 1859. Since it first appeared on May 2, it remained inactive until May 9 when it released an X2.2-class solar flare at 10:10 UT.

This enormous and violent release of energy stimulated the launch of six coronal mass ejections of which three merged to become an intense ‘cannibal CME’ that arrived near Earth on May 10 at 16:45 UT. Its south-directed magnetic field was perfect for imparting the maximum amount of energy to our planet’s magnetosphere. For a transit time of about 24-hours, it was traveling at a speed of about 1,700 km/s when it arrived. It sparked a G5-level extreme geomagnetic disturbance with a Kp index of 9 between May 10, 21:00 UT and May 11, 03:00 UT. The image below was taken by Tom Wasiela on May 10, 2024 from Roanoke, Virginia and is courtesy of the SpaceWeather Gallery. Reports suggest that aurora were seen as far south as Florida and Puerto Rico.

Taken by Tom Wasiela on May 10, 2024 @ Roanoke, Virginia

On May 9th at 06:54 UT AR-3664 produced an X-3.9 flare. This was followed on May 11 with a fourth major X-5.8 flare at 1:39 UT, which caused an immediate shortwave radio blackout across the entire Pacific Ocean that lasted for several hours. It is expected that the May 11 flare sparked anoher CME that may arrive near Earth on Monday evening May 13.

The last G5 geomagnetic storm that we experienced was way back in October 28 to November 5, 2003. These Halloween Storms caused power outages in Sweden and damaged transformers in South Africa. Despite many recent cautionary comments in the news media about cellphone and satellite outages and power grid problems, as yet none of these have been identified but perhaps in the next few weeks these technological impacts may start to be mentioned as anecdotes begin to surface.  

Unfortunately, many areas on the East Coast were covered by clouds during this three-day period and missed the opportunity to see these major aurorae. However, my DIY magnetometer (see my earlier blog on how to build your own $50 magnetometer (located in Kensington, Maryland (latitude 39o N) was able to keep up with the invisible changes going on, and produced a very respectable record of this entire storm period. As a scientist, I am often working with things I cannot directly see with my eyes, so the fact that I had my trusty magnetometer to reveal these invisible changes around me was pretty cool!

This graph shows a side-by-side comparison of the data recorded by my RM3100 magnetometer (black) and the magnetometer at the Fredericksberg Magnetic Observatory (red). I have shifted and rescaled the plots so you can more easily see how similar they are. This is very satisfying because it shows that even a simple home-made magnetometer can perform very well in keeping up with the minute changes in the geomagnetic field. This plot shows the variation in the so-called D component, which is the local magnetic declination angle. Mathematically is is defined by D = arctan(Bx/By). It’s the angle relative to geographic North that your local compass points.

Below is a slightly different graph of the RM3100 data. As you can see in the first part of the above plot between 36 and 63 UT hours, the smooth change is caused by the diurnal Sq current effect that is correlated with the solar elevation angle. During this storm period, it is assumed to have behaved smoothly during the actual storm, so in the graph below I have subtracted it from the magnetometer data. The result is that I have now isolated the changes due to the storm itself. The top row of numbers are the 3-hour Kp index averages from NOAA. The marked times are for EDT in Maryland. Universal Time is 4 hours ahead of EDT.

This was, indeed, a very powerful storm that lasted about 42 hours. This places it among a handful of exceptional geomagnetic storms that includes the great Carrington Storm of August 28 to Septemer 5, 1859.

Why is this important? Well, in the grand scheme of things it may not matter much, but as an astronomer it is still a lot of fun to have access to the invisible universe from the comfort of my suburban home. I will let geophysicists have all the fun deciphering all the bumps and wiggles and what they tell us about our magnetic field and solar storms!

Meanwhile, my gear is primed and ready to go to detect this Monday’s next storm. Some predict that it may be even bigger then the one we just experienced. It’s interesting how the Carrington Storm was actually two major storms separated by a few days, with the CME from the first storm also canibalizing several other CMEs that were also enroute.

Sunspot Cycle Update!

Aurora over South Dakota on April 23, 2023 taken by Evan Ludes.

The spectacular solar storm we had on April 23, 2023 reminds us that, as the current sunspot cycle continues to progress, we will have many more of these spectacular aurora to look forward to in the next few years. So where are we in the current sunspot cycle?

Sunspot cycles average about 9 to 12 years, with the stronger cycles on the shorter end of this range and weaker cycles on the longer end of this range. The current cycle, Number 25, seems to be exceeding all forecasts for a weaker cycle and may in fact resemble previous ones like Cycle 22 or 23.

Solar Cycle Progression (Solar Cycle 24 – 25) – March 2023. Credit: NOAA/SWPX

The current cycle began in December 2019 and some predictions at that time suggested that it would probably be a very weak cycle perhaps not even exceeding Cycle 24. This is shown by the grey band in the above figure. Some even thought based on solar magnetic field data that we could be heading into another Maunder Minimum with no recognizble sunspots for the next 50 years. Instead, the rapid rise of activity and solar flares since 2020 has demonstrated that we still do not really understand what drives sunspot cycles.

This is rather embarrasing. The sunspot cycle is one of the most glaring features of the sun whose nearly constant period of 11 years begs to be explained. This is like meteorologists still not being able to explain why Earth has its four seasons.

The current sunspot cycle was born with the first spots sighted around April 2018 with spots that had the opposite polarity of those in Cycle 24. It is common for such spots to start appearing several years before the actual cycle commences. But by November 2019 this number had increased to two spots. In May 2020 the first M-class flare erupted, followed by the first X-class flare in July 2020.

Since 2020, the sunsppot counts and flare activity have consistently placed Cycle 25 on the upper tracks of the strong cycle forecasts being nearly 50% more active than the initial predictions year-by-year. Already by January and March 2023 we are seeing 143 and 122 sunspots which compares with the peak of 146 seen for Cycle 24. The red band in the figure below shows the current range of curves based on the most recent data. This places the trend for the maximum somewhere between Cycle 23 and Cycle 24. But the current year 2023 trends will probably give us the definitive predictions. So far, it looks like Cycle 25 will peak around early-2024.

This chart shows from lft to right the sunspot cycles 21,22,23 and 24. The last one on the right is the current cycle 25, with the original predicted number of sunspots, represented as the blue line. The green lines show the observed sunspots, which are trending toward the red line – the McIntosh et al. study – which predicts a higher number of sunspots.

So far, Cycle 25 is 40 months old. During this time we have already experienced 8 X-class flares on (X1) October 2, 2022, (X1.2) January 5, 2023, (X1.3) January 9, 2023, (X1) January 10, 2023, (X1.1) February 11, 2023, (X2.2) February 17, 2023, (X2.1) March 3, 2023, and (X1.2) March 29, 2023. Most of these appeared in 2023 so the pace of these major events is quickening.

Why is this important?

The sunspot cycle is a barometer of what we call space weather. Space weather is a term analogous to Earth weather with a number of parallels. Strong terrestrial winds are equivalent to the solar wind. Solar flares are equivalent to severe lightning storms, and coronal mass ejections are analogous to hurricanes and tornados. Just as severe Earth weather can cause billions of dollars of damage, severe space weather can damage satellites in Earth orbit, produce harmful radiation for astronauts working in space, and cause electric power grid outages. They also produce dramatic aurora!

The most recent examples of what space weather can do is the loss of 40 Starlink satellites on February 3, 2022 costing SpaceX over $100 million. The cause was a space weather event that heated up Earth’s outer atmosphere causing it to expand into space and provide extra drag to the satellites in Low Earth Orbit. The satellites tried to compensate by firing their thrusters but quickly used up all their propellant and burned up in the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency’s Swarm satellites are having their own problems. Launched in 2013, these satellites measure and map Earth’s magnetic field. By July 2022 the satellites in the three-satellite constellation have been falling by up to 20 km per year from their initial orbit of 450-530 km.

How stormy can it get?

Frequency of geomagnetic events stronger than Kp=6 (blue) Kp=7 (red) and Kp=8 (black) averaged over the recent ‘strong’ sunspot cycles by the year of the cycle. Sunspot Maximum occurs near Years 5-6.

The graph shows how disturbed Earth’s magnetic field is during various years throughout the sunspot cycle. It is based on the average activity from the past three cycles. The black line gives the average number of extreme storms with Kp > 8 that produce aurora seen as far south as southern California or Florida like the recent one on April 23, 2023. The red line is storms stronger tha Kp = 7, and the blue line is storms stronger then Kp=6. These still produce brilliant aurora, but generally only seen in the northern-tier states of the United States and in New England and Alaska.

We are now in Year 4 of the current sunspot cycle with a maximum that may be between Year 5-6 in 2024-2025, so we should expect that most of the aurora activity is still in our future, peaking sometime between Year 7 and 9, which is about 2026-2028. It all depends on how the sunspot numbers play out this year and in 2024, but for aurora lovers, the best is yet to come!