Updated 11:49 AM EDT, May 10, 2024

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Brace yourselves for a celestial show this weekend as an exceptionally robust solar storm hurtles towards Earth, potentially treating parts of the U.S. to dazzling northern lights while also posing risks of power and communication disruptions.

In a rare move, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has issued a geomagnetic storm watch, marking the first such alert in nearly two decades. This watch is anticipated to escalate into a warning by Friday night, coinciding with the expected arrival of the solar outburst.

NOAA has been proactive, notifying power plant operators and satellite handlers to implement precautionary measures. “It’s difficult to predict the worst-case scenario on Earth,” remarked NOAA space weather forecaster Shawn Dahl, “but a severe level event is exceptionally rare.”

The solar activity, initiated by powerful solar flares since Wednesday, has resulted in five eruptions of plasma that possess the capacity to disrupt both satellites in orbit and terrestrial power grids. Each of these eruptions, scientifically termed coronal mass ejections, can contain billions of tons of plasma and magnetic fields from the sun’s corona, its outer atmosphere.

According to NOAA, these flares appear to emanate from a sunspot that dwarfs Earth’s size by a factor of 16. It’s worth noting that an extreme geomagnetic storm in 2003 caused power outages in Sweden and inflicted damage on power transformers in South Africa.

As this latest storm barrels towards Earth, it carries the potential to push the spectacle of northern lights as far south as Alabama and Northern California. While not expected to rival the most intense solar storm recorded in 1859, which induced auroras as far south as central America and potentially Hawaii, the upcoming event may approach such levels of intensity. “That’s an extreme-level event,” Dahl remarked, “while we’re not anticipating a repeat, it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility.”