WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A massive solar storm hitting Earth today that may affect power grids, airplane routes and space-based satellite navigation systems could also intensify the Northern Lights.
"The CME (coronal mass ejection - a cloud of charged particles ejected from the sun by the strong solar flare) hit the Earth's magnetosphere about 3 a.m. this morning," said KING 5 Meteorologist Rich Marriott. "It doesn’t appear to me as strong as originally expected. So far it is only producing a moderate geomagnetic storm. This makes significant aurora (lights) less likely over Washington."
Marriott says even if the aurora does occur, increasing clouds Thursday night will make it harder to see the show.
"The best place to see aurora is a spot with clear, dark skies - so the farther away from city lights the better - and of course fewer clouds!" said Marriott.
One of the largest solar storms in the last five years is hitting Earth Thursday. It's expected to shake the globe's magnetic field while intensifying aurora displays (also known as the northern and southern lights), according to space weather scientist Joseph Kunches, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
"Auroras are probably the treat that we get when the sun erupts," Kunches told Space.com.
Scientists say the storm started with a giant solar flare earlier in the week and grew as it raced outward from the sun, expanding like a giant soap bubble. The massive cloud of charged particles could disrupt utility grids, airline flights, satellite networks and GPS services, especially in northern areas.
Astronomers say the storm is part of the sun's normal 11-year cycle, which is supposed to reach peak storminess next year. Solar storms don't harm people, but they can disrupt technology.
Officials say North American utilities are monitoring for abnormalities on their grids and have contingency plans.