'Cannibal' solar bursts may bring auroras as far south as New York

The sun has spat out two clouds of plasma in the past two days, which might trigger beautiful aurora displays observable much farther south than usual.

The two coronal mass ejections (CMEs), eruptions of charged particles from the sun's upper atmosphere known as the corona, burst from the sun on Aug. 14 and 15 respectively, according to the U.K. forecaster Met Office. As the CMEs cross the 93,000,000-mile (150 million kilometers) distance between the star and our planet, they might cannibalize each other, according to SpaceWeather.com, creating a single super powerful CME. 

CME cannibalization occurs when the sun launches two eruptions within a short period of time, with the second of the two being more energetic, and therefore faster than the first. 

The double CME is currently expected to reach Earth on Thursday (Aug. 18) and might trigger aurora displays that could be visible as far south as New York and the north of England. 

Related: Where and how to photograph the aurora

This still from a NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the sun amid a series of strong solar flares on Aug. 14 and 15, 2022. (Image credit: NASA/SDO)

Auroras are a by-product of geomagnetic storms caused by interactions between Earth's magnetic field and the magnetized plasma from the sun. In addition to those mesmerizing phenomena, geomagnetic storms can also trigger power blackouts and disrupt satellite links and radio communications. The United Kingdom's national weather service, Met Office, predicts the upcoming geomagnetic storm to be only minor and doesn't expect significant disruption. 

There are currently five numbered sunspot regions on the visible disk of the sun, generating solar flares, bursts of electromagnetic radiation that also affect Earth. Unlike CMEs, which take up to three days to arrive, solar flares reach the planet at the speed of light, which means forecasters can give no advance warning as the planet experiences the effect the moment the flares are seen. 

Within the past 24 hours, there have been three moderate-class flares from the most active sunspot region, which triggered minor radio blackouts, Met Office said. The space weather forecasters expect further flares over the coming days. In addition to the two CMEs, there is also some increased solar wind flowing from a coronal hole, which will enhance the aurora displays expected toward the end of this week. 

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Tereza Pultarova
Senior Writer

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.