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Solar flare
An extreme ultraviolet image of the sun, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, shows an X9.3 flare erupting at lower right. (NASA / Goddard / SDO Photo)

The sun has been acting up this week, and normally that would produce auroral displays bright enough to see in Washington state.

But this isn’t a normal week: Western skies have been obscured by wildfire smoke, and although westerly winds are expected to push out a lot of that smoke overnight in the Seattle area, it’s debatable whether northern lights will be visible.

One solar flare, rated as a moderate M5 on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s space weather scale, generated a wave of electrically charged particles that is now sweeping past Earth. That produced the conditions for a strong geomagnetic storm.

The most noticeable effect would be heightened auroras, and NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center said northern lights could be visible along the northern tier of the United States.

But in the Pacific Northwest, the delicate greenish glow of the aurora is likely to be overwhelmed by the dull reddish glow of the nearly full moon, shining through an obscuring haze of wildfire smoke:

There might be another chance for auroras in the days ahead: Two more solar flares erupted early today, at 2:10 a.m. and 5;02 a.m. PT. The second one registered as an X9.3 blast, which makes it the strongest flare observed in more than a decade. The electromagnetic pulses were powerful enough to cause widespread radio blackouts.

Early indications suggest that the resulting coronal mass ejection will deal Earth’s magnetosphere a glancing blow, producing moderate auroral displays on Thursday night. But it’s not known exactly how clear our skies will get over the next few days. Although the wildfire smoke is expected to clear out, the forecast calls for the more usual kind of clouds.

The best advice is to watch the weather forecast, keep an eye on the auroral forecast – and, as always, watch the skies.

Here’s our standard list of aurora resources:

This report has been updated with forecasts from SpaceWeatherLive.com.

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