An unusually strong geomagnetic storm may allow Minnesotans a glimpse of the northern lights Wednesday night — weather permitting.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists say the sun emitted clouds of electrically conducted gas several days ago. That causes Earth's magnetic field to "wiggle around and change," creating a geomagnetic storm, said Bob Lysak, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Minnesota.
"The magnetic field of the earth normally shields us from the solar wind, which is the steady flow of gas out from the sun," Lysak said. "But when these blobs hit then it can push the magnetic field in, which has the effect of bringing the region of the northern lights further south."
With favorable weather conditions, the aurora borealis may be seen as far south as Iowa, Pennsylvania and Oregon, perhaps until Friday.
Clouds from light isolated showers in and around the Twin Cities may make it difficult to see any northern light activity Wednesday night, said Joe Calderone, meteorologist at the National Weather Service. But there might be a chance once the rain stops and the clouds clear.
After Wednesday night, heavy rain and thunderstorms expected through Friday will greatly diminish the possibility of seeing the northern lights around the Twin Cities and throughout parts of Minnesota, Calderone said.
For those hoping to see the northern lights, Lysak recommended finding a place that is dark and away from light pollution, in an open area such as near a lake, and to face north around midnight. Closer to Duluth, the aurora borealis may show overhead. Northern Minnesota in general has a better chance at seeing northern light activity this week.
The geomagnetic storm is classified as a "G3" storm on a scale of 1-5 — with 5 being an extreme storm, said Bill Murtagh, program coordinator at the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo.
This storm is considered strong, but isn't expected to affect Earth a whole lot, besides some interference with satellites, he said. More powerful storms can cause transformers to crash, instigate widespread blackouts and bring GPS systems to a halt.
Through Friday, the geomagnetic storm will be classified as either moderate or strong, allowing for some areas of the United States to see the northern lights again, he added.
Earth has not seen many geomagnetic storms for the past five years, but they will happen more frequently as the sun nears the peak of its 11-year solar cycle in 2024-25, Murtagh said.