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The Breathtaking Power And Beauty Of The Sun

The science, destruction, and beauty of the solar storm that’s been blasting earth—from the breathtaking Aurora Borealis to future exploration of the sun itself.

In this photo taken Monday, Jan. 23, 2012, the skies over the frozen Susitna River near Talkeetna, Alaska are lit up by a display of the northern lights, or Aurora Borealis.  A common occurrence in northern climates, the aurora was enhanced in this display by solar flares in the days preceding the event.  (AP)

In this photo taken Monday, Jan. 23, 2012, the skies over the frozen Susitna River near Talkeetna, Alaska are lit up by a display of the northern lights, or Aurora Borealis. A common occurrence in northern climates, the aurora was enhanced in this display by solar flares in the days preceding the event. (AP)

We know our sun is vast and blazing.  But sometimes it’s blazing more aggressively than others.  Positively storming.  Last week, the largest solar storm in almost a decade boomed out with a wave of cosmic energy across the 93 million miles to Earth.  And we got hit.

Superheated gas hurling waves of particles off the sun.  Slamming Earth’s magnetic field.  Threatening power grids, orbiting satellites, GPS signals, airline flights, radio communications.  And making some amazing Northern Lights.

This hour, On Point:  Heading into storm season on the sun.

-Tom Ashbrook


Justin Kasper, astrophysicist in the Solar and Stellar X-Ray Group in the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. His latest project is leading the Solar Wind Electrons Alphas And Protons (SWEAP) investigation on the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft.

Howard Singer, chief scientist at NOAA’s Space Weather and Prediction Center.

Frank Koza, executive director of operations support at PJM Interconnection, which is a regional transmission organization that coordinates the movement of electricity in 13 states.

Chad Blakley, aurora borealis photographer, who runs the website Lights Over Lapland.


Astrophysicist Justin Kasper outside the On Point studios at WBUR in Boston. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

Astrophysicist Justin Kasper outside the On Point studios at WBUR in Boston. (Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

From Tom’s Reading List

NASA “The sun erupted late on January 22, 2012 with an M8.7 class flare, an earth-directed coronal mass ejection (CME), and a burst of fast moving, highly energetic protons known as a “solar energetic particle” event. The latter has caused the strongest solar radiation storm since September 2005 according to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.”

NPR “It begins on the sun’s surface: a broad, hellish plain of boiling 5,700 degree gas. Powerful magnetic fields arc upwards from the surface, rising high into the solar atmosphere to form giant, twisting arcades of energy. Matter streams up these arches to be gripped in a magnetic vise a million miles above the surface. Then something happens. Something shifts. Magnetic lines of force in the arcade snap like steel cables on the bridge to heaven. Billions of tons of solar gas are suddenly blown outward, exploding across interplanetary space. Three days later the shimmering ball of energy smashes head-on into the unsuspecting Earth.”

Discovery News “As the sun increases in activity toward “solar maximum” (predicted to occur in 2013), we can expect more intense solar storms over the coming months. Magnetic activity is bursting through the solar “surface” (the photosphere), producing a rash of sunspots. This in turn has resulted in explosive events — solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) — boosting the intensity of radiation environment surrounding our planet.”

Video: Lights of Lapland

Here’s some video of the recent Northern Lights display over the Abisko National Park in Sweden.

Video: NASA Photographs Solar Storms

In this video, shot on January 22, 2012, shows a portion of the sun erupting and blasting into space.

Video: The Sun Song

This video, uploaded to YouTube by NASA, features the Chromatics, a group of astrophysicist a capella singers from the Goddard Space Flight Center.


“Why Does the Sun Shine?” by They Might Be Giants

“The Sun Song” by The Chromatics

“Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles


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  • Anonymous

    The Northern Lights while beautiful have become so due to a witches brew resulting from Fukushima.

    Solar storms can trigger a little recognized nuclear nightmare.

    See http://www.aesopinstitute.org to understand why and how.

    And what we can do to minimize the damage.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Fukushima didn’t cause this.  You’re correct to say that coronal mass ejections can play havoc with our power systems, but our reactors can’t produce the auroras.

  • JustSayin

    Over the past month, three satellites have been dragged down. Was this due to atmospheric drag from this cycle of solar activity? It is one of the indicators.

    Should we expect inductive blackouts? How well is the grid currently (pun intended) protected from a severe solar storm?

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Newt Gingrich was mocked for suggesting that an electromagnetic pulse was a major threat to our security, but an EMP doesn’t have to come from nuclear weapons.  Quebec experienced a blackout in the late 80s, due to an event like this.

      • JustSayin

        Well I’m with him on that, I for one would rather spend some money on the grid, to harden it and add redundant safety measures.

        Or… we could just add another carrier group to our fleet, or build two f22′s, or any more unneeded military hardware.  We need to see national security as something other than nukes and war.

        • Terry Tree Tree

          I must AGREE with you on that!

  • Anonymous

    I once witnessed the northern lights form an octagon like wagon wheel overhead, rotating ever so slowly for a few minutes. It was truly amazing. I was wondering by what mechanism such a regular shape might manifest?

    • Robert Riversong

      That’s the zodiac wheel lighting up ;-)

  • Jasoturner

    I am periodically struck by the observation that we have a wonderful, mind-bending sight such as the sky (I am thinking of the night sky, but still), but few of us as adults look up and really think about the astonishing vastness of space, and our tiny little place in it.  I guess we’re too worried about our 401Ks and making our mortgage payments to do so.  But actually, looking up is what brings some real perspective about what things are important in our universe and, perhaps, in our lives.

    • Anonymous

      So many of our youth have not experienced that majestic vision of even the Milky Way as the light pollution occludes the bright view I get when I visit Lake Champlain (north of Burlington) every summer. But the light halo of Burlington is all too noticeable.

  • Ed in Vermont

    How far north would I have to travel to get a good view?

    • Anonymous

      It depends on the strength of the coronal event.

      But the biggest thing to improve the visibility is to get away from the city and the “light pollution” that is overtaking so much of the world (see any nighttime satellite image showing the white sections of the population clusters).

      Also make sure that your town and as much of the rest of the state buys only street lamps that cast light down where it is needed and greatly restricts upward diffusion.

    • Robert Riversong

      Just wait. It’ll come to you.

  • gemli

    Whenever OnPoint discusses a scientific topic, I’m reminded of how little understanding most people have about science in general.  There are some sensible questions and observations, but they are outnumbered by those that have little idea about how the universe works.  This is a problem because our lives are increasingly depentdent on understanding scientific and technological issues, such as global warming, medical advances, and the like.  But I’m glad that OnPoint raises these issues, as the popular media rarely discuss scientific questions in depth.

    • Anonymous

      You are so right. Another source of regular science reporting is the weekly Talk of the Nation, Science Friday, the first hour of which is carried on WBUR at 2 p.m. and the second hour at 9 p.m.

      A listener can subscribe to a weekly e-mail and learn what is upcoming. Also all the programs are searchable and available online.

      Last Friday there was a long segment on the 22 January eruption and the two guests pointed out that a big coronal event was concurrently underway at the same spot on the sun’s surface but not pointed at the earth because of the sun’s rotation.

    • Robert Riversong

      Well remember that half of all Americans don’t know science because the Bible teaches them all they need to know about creation.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    One storm like we got back in the 1800′s and civilization as we know is over.

    • Robert Riversong

      Tell that to the Mayans!

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  • Anonymous

    Why isn’t liberal elitist NPR giving equal time to those who claim that the sun orbits the Earth? 

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      We just had a call about the Mayan calendar.  Good enough for you?

      • Anonymous

        My crystals say yes.

    • Robert Riversong

      Ah…maybe because NPR is neither liberal nor elitist?

      And, by the way, the sun does orbit the earth – it’s all a matter of perspective.

  • Yar

    From The Space weather website.  
    4 per cycle(4 days per cycle) 
    Power systems: : widespread voltage control problems and protective system problems can occur, some grid systems may experience complete collapse or blackouts. Transformers may experience damage.Spacecraft operations: may experience extensive surface charging, problems with orientation, uplink/downlink and tracking satellites.Other systems: pipeline currents can reach hundreds of amps, HF (high frequency) radio propagation may be impossible in many areas for one to two days, satellite navigation may be degraded for days, low-frequency radio navigation can be out for hours, and aurora has been seen as low as Florida and southern Texas (typically 40° geomagnetic lat.)**.http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/NOAAscales/index.html#GeomagneticStorms

    I want to know the best time to see Northern lights at my home in Kentucky.  Is there an app for that?

    • Robert Riversong

      Best time is always beer thirty.

    • Anonymous

      One way to get an alert is to sign up for the EarthSky newsletter or facebook, twitter, RSS, etc. at:


  • Terry Tree Tree

    As a Volunteer Fire-Fighter, the first Aurora Boralialis, that I saw, was a shimmering red, covering most of the northern horizon.  I thought it was a HUMONGUS forest fire!  Scared the crap out of me! 
       I was so relieved to find out I could relax and enjoy the beautiful display!

    • Robert Riversong

      Yeah, they don’t cover that much in Firefighter I – you have to take Wildlands training for it.

      • Terry Tree Tree

        I missed that part of Wildlands Fire Fighting?  I don’t remember it being mentioned! 

  • steve

    the event last sunday was spectaular here in mid norway!

  • Hikaru Katayamma

    As a ham radio operator, we actually LOVE a good solar storm. It build the ionosphere and helps with long range “bounce” communication on the higher frequencies (10M, 6M, etc).

    During the last big solar cycle, I was able to talk to Australia using only 5 watts of power!!

  • Alescott

    could this afect the 30,000 dollar solar panels i am about to buy thanks alex

    • Robert Riversong

      Only if they’re GPS-controlled sun-trackers.

  • http://profiles.google.com/rickevans033050 Rick Evans

    I remember that spectacular aurora mentioned by the caller. On that particular night I was trying to use a telescope in Myles Standish Forest and had my night spoiled by the aurora. It was beautiful to watch though.

  • steve

    Im checking the canadan website every day
    daily map of the northern lights

  • Rose

    My husband is on a tour in Antarctica.  I haven’t had an email from him in two days.  Should I be worried?

    • Robert Riversong

      Has he been unfaithful before?

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Is his name Newt?

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    The Mayans could not see sunspots, so they couldn’t make a calendar of the solar cycle.

  • Asa

    Has the prolonged solar minimum, mentioned earlier, mean that the effects of climate change have been mitigated during the minimum and will be amplified in the maximum? 

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      No, this doesn’t affect climate.  The total energy from the Sun remains more or less the same throughout.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    That was dumb – fyi, since they didn’t say it, don’t look at the corona during an eclipse. Without proper protection it will damage your eyes.

    • Anonymous

      Up to permanent blindness! Use welder’s glass or a cardboard box (shoebox) with a hole in one side held up to the sun so its image is projected on the opposite side where you view it. See “camera obscura.”

    • Robert Riversong

      Quite right. Always look through a condom.

  • George T Dedham

    please put more numbers on the things your are talking about, and help us put those numbers into perspective.  How big in amps or watts or something are the power surges in power lines now and during Carrington event

    • Anonymous

      From last Friday’s Science Friday, induced currents were strong enough to make telegraph keys too hot to handle.

      That is much less than the induced currents from a nearby lightning strike that can heat the power wires within a home and set it on fire.

  • Mack Slayden

    There is a potential voltage that increases as you get further above the ground (normal).  During a solar event is it dangerous to fly a kite etc?

    • Hikaru Katayamma

      Not if you’re using Twine.  If you used an uninsulated wire, you’d definitely get a jolt, but that would probably be more from static (wind stripping electrons from the wire) than then the solar event.

      • Anonymous

        Many are amazed at how lucky Ben Franklin was to survive his kite to Leyden jar experiment. Maybe he took precautions he did not document.

  • BHA in Vermont

    (sic) “Was the destruction worth it to see the beautiful Aurora Borealis?”

    Tom, it isn’t like we had a choice!

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Funny–my paper map doesn’t care what the satellites are doing.

    • Robert Riversong

      But your compass cares about the field.

      May the field be with you!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    Can’t remember the website, but there are overhead (shots taken from above the aurora looking down to earth) time lapse shots of the auroras, they are amazing.

  • Tom Hibbs

    I have heard that some far-north Native cultures have legends that there
    is some kind of a sound associated with the Aurora. I have witnessed one event and the silence was deafening. Have any of the
    guests heard of this? Is there anything to it?

    • Robert Riversong

      The Innuit say its the ancestors communicating, but most scientists say it’s all in the head. However, another theory also claims it’s all in your head, but for a different reason. Electrophonic hearing is the direct stimulation of the auditory nerves by external electromagnetic fields. There are reports of people hearing “clicks” and “pops” coincident with lightning flashes, and well ahead of any thunder, that can only be explained this way. The theory is unable to explain why only the sense of hearing is affected – though there are rare reports of people noting odd smells accompanying an aurora display.

      The sounds could also be due to what is known as brush discharge. According to this theory, the ionization effects that produce the aurora are echnically reaching ground level, but the intensity at low altitudes is not strong enough to produce a visible display. This causes a buildup of static electricity on nearby objects, which intermittently discharges into the atmosphere. In effect, this produces microscopic bolts of lightning. If this theory is correct, the sound the observer is hearing is the result of thousands of these tiny sparks. The effect would be strongest on long, thin, dry objects such as grass or frizzy hair, which are best at bleeding off excess charge.

      Of all the hypotheses, the most likely suspect, since it can be duplicated in the lab, is electrophonic transduction. Certain very low frequency radio waves have the same frequency as sound waves. Long, thin conductors – grass, hair, wire eyeglass frames – serve as antennae for these radio waves. When these antennae receive the signal, they vibrate and transform the radio energy directly into sound.

      VLF radio waves have been detected in aurora displays, and have been found to be produced by meteors as well. It is worth noting that sounds similar to those associated with aurora have been heard in conjunction with meteors, and even recorded.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Mars lacks a planetary magnetic field to protect itself from these events.

  • Mark

    hello! something i ‘ve always wanted to do: skydive through an aurora. is this possible? if so would the energy level be too high?

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      The aurora takes place far too high for the typical skydiver–unless you’re parachuting from several hundred miles up.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Did you hear the part about the temperatures being in the MILLIONS of degrees?

      • Ed in Vermont

        Actually, I believe that million-degree temperature is of the sun’s corona, not Earth’s aurora.

  • Robert Riversong

    From The Ballad of the Northern Lights by Robert Service

    Oh, it was wild and weird and wan, and ever in camp o’
    We would watch and watch the silver dance of the mystic
    Northern Lights.
    And soft they danced from the Polar sky and swept in primrose haze;
    And swift they pranced with their silver feet, and pierced with a blinding blaze.
    They danced a cotillion in the sky; they were rose and silver shod;
    It was not good for the eyes of man – ’twas a sight for the
    eyes of God.
    It made us mad and strange and sad, and the gold whereof we dreamed
    Was all forgot, and our only thought was of the lights that

    And the skies of night were alive with light, with a throbbing, thrilling flame;
    Amber and rose and violet, opal and gold it came.
    It swept the sky like a giant scythe, it quivered back to a wedge;
    Argently bright, it cleft the night with a wavy golden edge.
    Pennants of silver waved and streamed, lazy banners
    Sudden splendors of sabres gleamed, lightning javelins were
    There in our awe we crouched and saw with our wild, uplifted
    Charge and retire the hosts of fire in the battlefield of
    the skies.

    And on we went on our woeful way, wrapped in a daze of
    And the Northern Lights in the crystal nights came forth
    with a mystic gleam.
    They danced and they danced the devil-dance over the naked snow;
    And soft they rolled like a tide upshoaled with a ceaseless
    ebb and flow.
    They rippled green with a wondrous sheen, they fluttered out
    like a fan;
    They spread with a blaze of rose-pink rays never yet seen of
    They writhed like a brood of angry snakes, hissing and
    sulphur pale;
    Then swift they changed to a dragon vast, lashing a cloven
    It seemed to us, as we gazed aloft with an everlasting
    The sky was a pit of bale and dread, and a monster revelled there.

    Day after day was dark as death, but ever and ever at
    With a brilliancy that grew and grew, blazed up the Northern
    They rolled around with a soundless sound like softly
    bruised silk;
    They poured into the bowl of the sky with the gentle flow of
    In eager, pulsing violet their wheeling chariots came,
    Or they poised above the Polar rim like a coronal of flame.
    From depths of darkness fathomless their lancing rays were
    Like the all-combining search-lights of the navies of the
    There on the roof-pole of the world as one bewitched I
    And howled and grovelled like a beast as the awful splendors
    My eyes were seared, yet thralled I peered through the parka
    hood nigh blind;
    But I staggered on to the lights that shone, and never I
    looked behind.

    There is a mountain round and low that lies by the Polar
    And I climbed its height in a whirl of light, and I peered
    o’er its jagged brim;
    And there in a crater deep and vast, ungained, unguessed of
    The mystery of the Arctic world was flashed into my ken.
    For there these poor dim eyes of mine beheld the sight of
    sights –
    That hollow ring was the source and spring of the mystic
    Northern Lights.

  • markie obrien

    The side of the earth the facing the next truly massive solar event will really be thrust into a dark time. Sure hope it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, it would be very inconvenient and annoying.

  • Carol Voigts

    my late husband (passed this last May) would be so excited about this sun storm.  He hd kept daily numbers on sun spots and sun storms since the 1960′s and would graph them out yearly.  I don’t know what to do with the reams of books of these numbers.  He was always talking about how quiet the sun had been in the past few years and all hell was going to break loose.  LOL

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Some University, or appropriate organization should be interested in them, depending on how good they are.
         Good luck.
         My sympathy about your loss.

  • carol voigts

    what is going on?  when I call your number 800-423-8255, I get an answering service for the University, and I’m supposed to key in a 7 digit box # or if I am a subscriber, key in my code.  How do you call the program anyway.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      The phone is active during the actual show at 10:00AM, and 11:00 AM.  If you don’t call by 10 minutes into the show, you probably have so many in front of you, that you won’t be called on.

  • Jlord1010

    The Mayan do not believe the world will come to an end, but that we are coming to then end of the 5,012 year cycle (If I remember correctly). According to a lecture I heard by Carlos Barrios anthropologist, researcher, historian and member of the World Council of Mayan Elders. He has published several books about the Mayan calendar but his seminal work The Book of Destiny is published in English. He also said that the Mayan’s do have prophecies that mention the solar flares.

  • http://twitter.com/Lokackle Lois Kackley

    It’s great to be among others fascinated by the sun’s recent activity. NASA’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day” site also dazzles the willing. http://loiskackley.gather.com/

  • Pschwenk

    We are a chemistry class, and we are wondering if you would be able to take an x-ray using the x-rays released during a large solar storm. In other words, would the x-rays released by the sun expose the film?  Any reply would be much appreciated.

  • Pingback: Aurora Borealis « DrPlim's Astro

  • Sun lover

    Does any one know if anything on the earth benefits from solar flare cycles - flushing the atmosphere, more rain?
    If looking at this as a gift – anyone working on capturing this energy for use on earth?

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Ukrainian forces guard a checkpoint in the town of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko called an emergency meeting of the nation's security council and canceled a foreign trip Thursday, declaring that "Russian forces have entered Ukraine," as concerns grew about the opening of a new front in the conflict.  (AP)

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Ukrainian forces guard a checkpoint in the town of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. Ukraine's president Petro Poroshenko called an emergency meeting of the nation's security council and canceled a foreign trip Thursday, declaring that "Russian forces have entered Ukraine," as concerns grew about the opening of a new front in the conflict.  (AP)

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