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Powerful solar storm could spark northern lights in US

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A strong solar storm headed toward Earth could produce northern lights in the U.S. and potentially disrupt communications this weekend.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a rare geometric storm watch — the first in nearly 20 years. The watch starts Friday and lasts all weekend.

In a press release on Thursday, NOAA said the sun produced strong solar flares beginning Wednesday, resulting in five outbursts of plasma capable of disrupting satellites in orbit and power grids here on Earth. Each eruption — known as a coronal mass ejection — can contain billions of tons of solar plasma.

Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation, according to NASA. Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth's atmosphere to physically impact humans on the ground, however -- when intense enough -- they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel. Flares and solar eruptions can impact radio communications, electric power grids, navigation signals, and pose risks to spacecraft and astronauts.

NOAA is calling this an unusual event, pointing out that the flares seem to be associated with a sunspot that’s 16 times the diameter of Earth. An extreme geomagnetic storm in 2003 took out power in Sweden and damaged power transformers in South Africa.

The latest storm could produce northern lights as far south in the U.S. as Alabama and Northern California, according to NOAA.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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