What is a solar storm? There may be one on Earth today, and here's all the weird stuff that could happen

Brianne Hogan

Depending on where you live, you could see the Northern or Southern Lights soon. That’s because a solar storm is on its way to Earth on Thursday night.

“Solar storm” might sound kind of scary and straight out of a sci-fi flick, but this one is relatively harmless to us Earthlings (phew). Tonight’s solar storm is a result of the sun unleashing a powerful solar flare on February 12th, which was witnessed by NASA.

Solar flares, aka bursts of high-energy radiation, are caused by magnetic storms on the surface of the sun. This particular solar flare was strong enough to produce a coronal mass ejection — an explosion of plasma and magnetic field — and its charged particles are expected to hit Earth.

Once this magnetized mass hits the planet, it’ll interact with Earth’s own magnetic surface — and that could cause a solar storm.

What can we expect from the solar storm?

Namely a light show, if you live in the high latitudes like Michigan and Maine, as well as Canada and Alaska. The storm could increase the brightness and visibility of auroras, otherwise known as the Northern and Southern Lights.

Some major solar storms can affect power grids, and can also be hazards for astronauts, spacecraft, and satellites. Even the internal compasses belonging to marine animals are affected, one NASA study warns, leaving them confused and more likely to become stranded on beaches.

Fortunately, tonight’s solar storm is expected to be fairly small, and will produce nothing more serious than brighter-than-usual auroras. In fact, solar storms are pretty common, and for the most part will not cause us serious damage.

“Even at their worst, the sun’s flares are not physically capable of destroying Earth,” NASA said in a 2013 article.

So tonight, take a moment to look up at the illuminated sky and admire the complicated beauty and relationship we share with the rest of the solar system. And thank the sun for cutting us a break this time.