Why you should be excited for giant solar flares

You've probably heard all kinds of horror stories about how the solar flare that's currently pummeling Earth means we should all be wearing tinfoil hats and cowering in our basements fighting off panic and anarchy. But really, it's not that bad, and there's one big reason why you should be excited that a solar flare is pointing our way: auroras.

Auroras happen when charged particles from the sun plow into atoms in our atmosphere and cause them to emit light. Earth's magnetic field funnels these particles towards the poles, which is why auroras are usually only visible at high latitudes. Since the intensity of an aurora is directly proportional to the intensity of the solar wind, auroras get more active when the sun is more active, and the latitude at which they're visible gets lower. I took this picture back in November of 2004 when I was at school in Maine; the aurora was visible so far south thanks to one of the strongest storms of that solar cycle:


Solar activity peaks every seven years or so, and the cycle we're in now will reach its zenith in 2013. It's entirely possible that if you live in any state which shares a border with Canada, you might be treated to an aurora in the next year or two, if we get lucky with solar activity. And for those of you farther south, we'd have to get very lucky, but it is possible that an "extreme" solar flare could generate auroras in Florida and Texas.

The fact is, Earth gets exposed to increased solar activity of varying magnitude all the time. Yes, if we got hit dead on by a very powerful flare, you and I might somehow notice (and power companies and satellite owners would have a bad time of it), but the sun is big and Earth is small and the odds are just not that high. So, if you're lucky enough to live in one of our more northern states, don't panic and just hope you get to enjoy the show.


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