Sprite Season Begins

April 7, 2021: Spring is the season for sprites, and Paul Smith just photographed a magnificent display over Kansas. “These were my first big sprites of the season,” says Smith, who took this picture on April 6th:

“They were so bright, I saw a couple of them with my unaided eyes,” he adds.

Sprites are a weird form of lightning that leap up from powerful thunderstorms. The ones Smith saw are “jellyfish sprites”, named for their resemblance to sea creatures. Their red tentacles stretch about 90 km high, almost touching the edge of space. Other forms exist, too.

At this time of year, severe storms set the stage for sprite formation. Mesoscale convective systems sweep across the Great Plains, cracking with intense electric fields that drive electrons up and into sprites. La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean may amplify this process.

Although the sprites were in Kansas, Smith saw them from Oklahoma. This weather satellite image shows the observing geometry.

“I was about 200 miles away from the thunderstorm,” says Smith. Turns out, that’s about the right distance. You have to be far away to see sprites over the top of the thunderclouds.

Although sprites have been reported by pilots and storm chasers for more than a century, many scientists were skeptical. Can you blame them? “Doctor, I just saw a giant red jellyfish in the sky!” A turning point came in 1989 when sprites were photographed by researchers at the University of Minnesota and cameras onboard the space shuttle. Now sprites are in the mainstream. See for yourself.

Realtime Sprite Photo Gallery
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The Chance of Storms Just Doubled

April 8, 2021: If you think you are safe from geomagnetic storms, think again. A new study just published in the journal Space Weather finds that powerful storms may be twice as likely as previously thought.

Jeffrey Love of the US Geological Survey, who authored the study, analyzed Earth’s strongest geomagnetic storms since the early 1900s. Previous studies looked back only to the 1950s. The extra data led to a surprise:

“A storm as intense as, say, the Québec Blackout of 1989 is predicted to occur, on average, about every four solar cycles. This is twice as often as estimated using only the traditional shorter dataset,” says Love.

Above: The data Love used in his extreme value analysis. Red and blue circles denote the two strongest storms in each solar cycle. Dst is a measure of geomagnetic activity that can be estimated from old magnetogram chart recordings.

A study like this is part physics, part math, and part detective work.

Love has spent recent years digging deeply into historical records, trying to figure out how often intense geomagnetic storms occur. It’s tricky. Even when old records of magnetic activity are published, they aren’t always easy to find or interpret. Love recalls the example of Vassouras, Brazil, where important magnetic data were recorded during the Great Geomagnetic Storm of May 1921:

“My colleague, Hisashi Hayakawa, discovered that a copy of the Vassouras yearbook (an annual summary of magnetic data) was held in a Japanese archive maintained by the World Data Center in Kyoto. In that yearbook is a copy of the magnetogram we needed. It is in fragments, upside down, and mislabeled, all of which had to be sorted out. I digitized it myself, and we were able to use the data to estimate the intensity of the 1921 storm.”

Above: A mixed-up fragment of a 1921 magnetogram chart recording from Vassouras, Brazil.

Tricky indeed. Love did similar digging for other storms as far back as Solar Cycle 14, which peaked in 1906. Ultimately, he was able to piece together a list of the most intense events. The top two storms of each solar cycle formed his dataset.

Then the statistics began. The methods Love used are not new, per se, but they are new to the field of space weather. Love explains: “Extreme-value statistical methods were developed by statisticians in the 1920s to 1940s. From there, it took a while for the methods to be distilled down and presented in an approachable way for non-statisticians. They are really only now starting to be used in the space weather community.”

Above: The morning after–a March 14, 1989, report of the Great Quebec Blackout in Montreal’s newspaper, the Gazette. [more]

An important result of Love’s research is the odds of another Québec-class storm: On March 13, 1989, a coronal mass ejection (CME) slammed into Earth’s magnetic field. It hit with unusual force, because a previous CME had cleared a path for it. Within 90 seconds of impact, the Hydro-Québec power grid failed, plunging millions of Canadians into darkness.

As the geomagnetic storm intensified, bright auroras spread as far south as Florida, Texas, and Cuba. Some onlookers thought they were witnessing a nuclear exchange. Decades later, power grid operators are still figuring out how to protect their systems from a repeat calamity.

Québec was once thought to be a 100 year storm. Extreme value statistics suggest a different answer. “It’s more like 45 years,” says Love.

In other words, the chance of storms just doubled.

Love’s original research, entitled “Extreme-event magnetic storm probabilities derived from rank statistics of historical Dst intensities for solar cycles 14-24,” may be read here.

20 Years Ago, An Extreme Geomagnetic Storm

March 31, 2021: What a difference 20 years makes. Today the sun is blank and featureless as Solar Cycle 25 struggles pull solar activity from the doldrums of a deep Solar Minimum. In March 2001, however, the solar disk was peppered with sunspots, including a monster named “AR9393.” The biggest sunspot of Solar Cycle 23, AR9393 was a truly impressive sight, visible to the naked eye at sunset and crackling with X-class solar flares.

On March 29, 2001, AR9393 hurled a pair of CMEs directly toward Earth. The first one struck during the early hours of March 31, 2001. The leading edge of the shock front was dense (~150 protons/cc) and strongly magnetized — traits that give rise to powerful geomagnetic disturbances. Within hours, an extreme geomagnetic storm was underway, registering the maximum value of G5 on NOAA storm scales.

“I was fortunate to witness and photograph the event when I was just a teenager,” recalls Lukasz Gornisiewicz, who watched the show from Medicine Hat, Alberta:

In the hours that followed, Northern Lights spread as far south as Mexico. In 20 year old notes, Dr. Tony Phillips of Spaceweather.com describes “red and green auroras dancing for hours” over the Sierra Nevada mountains of California at latitude +37 degrees. Similar displays were seen in Houston, Texas; Denver Colorado; and San Diego, California.

“Here in Payson, Arizona, red curtains and green streamers were pulsating all across the sky,” wrote Dawn Schur when she submitted this picture to Spaceweather.com 20 years ago:

“We have seen some auroras here before, but this display was really special,” she wrote.

A second CME struck at ~2200 UT on March 31th. Instead of firing up the storm, however, the impact quenched it. When the CME passed Earth the interplanetary magnetic field surrounding our planet suddenly turned north — an unfavorable direction for geomagnetic activity.

Indeed, the quenching action of the second CME may have saved power grids and other technological systems from damage. The storm’s intensity (-Dst=367 nT) stopped just short of the famous March 14, 1989, event that caused the Quebec Blackout (-Dst=565 nT) and it was only a fraction of the powerful Carrington Event of 1859 (-Dst=~900 nT).

The whole episode lasted barely 24 hours, brief but intense. Visit Spaceweather.com archives for March 30, 31st and April 1, 2001, to re-live the event. Our photo gallery from 20 years ago is a must-see; almost all the pictures were taken on film!

March 30-31, 2001, Aurora Photo Gallery
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