The Sky Put On Quite a Show Last Night

Spectacular display of northern lights was visible throughout US, world due to powerful solar storm
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 11, 2024 7:30 AM CDT
The Sky Put On Quite a Show Last Night
Northern lights shine over Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Friday.   (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)

An unusually strong solar storm hitting Earth produced stunning displays of color in the skies across the Northern Hemisphere early Saturday, with no immediate reports of disruptions to power and communications. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a rare severe geomagnetic storm warning when a solar outburst reached Earth on Friday afternoon, hours sooner than anticipated. The effects of the northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, were due to last through the weekend and possibly into next week, per the AP. The NOAA alerted operators of power plants and spacecraft in orbit, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to take precautions. "For most people here on planet Earth, they won't have to do anything," said Rob Steenburgh, a scientist with NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center.

The storm produced northern lights as far south in the US as Florida and Northern California, per the NOAA and USA Today. "That's really the gift from space weather: the aurora," Steenburgh said. He and his colleagues said the best aurora views may come from phone cameras, which are better at capturing light than the naked eye. Snap a picture of the sky and "there might be actually a nice little treat there for you," said Mike Bettwy, operations chief for the prediction center. The most intense solar storm in recorded history, in 1859, prompted auroras in Central America and possibly even Hawaii. "We are not anticipating that," but it could come close, NOAA space weather forecaster Shawn Dahl said. This storm poses a risk for high-voltage transmission lines for power grids, not the electrical lines ordinarily found in people's homes, Dahl told reporters.

Satellites also could be affected, which in turn could disrupt navigation and communication services here on Earth. An extreme geomagnetic storm in 2003, for example, took out power in Sweden and damaged power transformers in South Africa. Even when the storm is over, signals between GPS satellites and ground receivers could be scrambled or lost, according to the NOAA. But there are so many navigation satellites that any outages shouldn't last long, Steenburgh noted. The sun has produced strong solar flares since Wednesday, resulting in at least seven outbursts of plasma. Each eruption, known as a coronal mass ejection, can contain billions of tons of plasma and magnetic field from the sun's outer atmosphere, or corona. The flares seem to be associated with a sunspot that's 16 times the diameter of Earth, the NOAA said. More here; also check out the pics in our gallery.

(More northern lights stories.)

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