Photo by NOAA/National Weather Service's Space Weather Prediction Center via Getty Images
We're right in the middle of the biggest solar radiation storm on earth since 2005, thanks to a massive solar flare that left the sun on Sunday.
Although solar flares can cause disruption of satellite computer systems and long-distance power lines, and cause aircraft to avoid polar flights due to disruption of radio activity and increased levels of radiation, the biggest noticeable effect from the storm for most of us is likely to be northern lights reaching much farther south than usual, possibly as far south as New York.
As the Christian Science Monitor explains, Sunday's solar flare sent what's called a coronal-mass ejection (CME) flying towards earth at 4 million miles an hour, which is fast even for this sort of event. The CMEs are giant clouds of energized particles - protons, electrons, and heavy atomic nuclei formed by the nuclear fusion reactions that keep the sun shining.*
The storm hit Tuesday morning, and the effects are expected to last through the night. According to spaceweather.com, this storm is strong enough to interfere with radio communications along the poles, and to possibly cause some satellite computers to reboot. The storms caused by solar flares are measured on a scale of one to five. This storm is a three.
Curious about just how big this flare is? NASA has an animated map. Those dots represent planets.
As the Los Angeles Times explains, this flare is something of an opening act for more anticipated solar activity in the very near future: The sun is approaching a period of peak activity in 2013.