Skywatchers across the world were treated to rare dancing light displays on Sunday and early Monday as the northern lights stretched much farther south than usual. With the colors dazzling viewers as far as Texas, this may have been the most widespread aurora borealis since 2003, report Matthew Cappucci and Kasha Patel for the Washington Post.
“The show lasted about 20 minutes all together, and [then] burst in intensity for about five minutes, with these beams of white light coming down from the sky,” Eric Eisner, a high school teacher from Santa Monica who viewed the aurora while camping in the Owens Peak Wilderness in California, tells Amy Graff of SFGATE. “It’s the kind of thing where you wake up in the morning and you’re like, ‘Oh that must have been a dream,’ but you realize it was real.”
Auroras occur when charged particles from the sun collide with gases in our atmosphere. The aurora borealis (also called the northern lights) and the aurora australis (southern lights) commonly occur close to the poles, because the Earth’s magnetic field steers the charged particles there.
But every so often, the sun spews out large amounts of plasma, charged particles and magnetic energy called coronal mass ejections (CME) that hurtle toward Earth as fast as 6.7 million miles per hour. This material can spark a geomagnetic storm, or a disruption in the magnetic field surrounding Earth—and experts say strong ones are growing more common. The storm that hit on Sunday was rated “severe,” a 4 out of 5 on NOAA’s scale, causing the auroras to be larger than usual.
“The way this storm—this CME—connected was just perfectly connected to Earth’s magnetic field,” Bill Murtagh, program coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center, tells the Post. “Consequently, the storming was up at the severe level versus just the moderate, maybe strong, level that we might have expected.”
The Northern Lights and a Meteor over Stonehenge this morning Photo credit Stonehenge Dronescapes on FB #Aurora #auroraborealis #northernlights #stonehenge #stars #astro #meteor #beautiful #april #astrophotography pic.twitter.com/RYIirr7X7J— Stonehenge U.K (@ST0NEHENGE) April 24, 2023
During this week’s storm, the northern lights stretched as far south as Colorado, New Mexico, France and Germany, while the southern lights appeared as far north as the Central West region of Australia’s New South Wales, reports Daisy Dobrijevic for Space.com. Viewers reported spectacular colors ranging from reds to greens and yellows—a variation caused by atoms of different elements reacting with the solar energy at different altitudes.
Storms like this one are expected to get more common in the near future. The sun’s activity level fluctuates over an 11-year cycle, and during that period, severe geomagnetic storms typically occur about 100 times. The surges in energy from these storms can cause disturbances in the power grid, GPS and radio communications, in addition to creating fantastic displays in the sky. Our current solar cycle is expected to peak in July 2025, which means we can expect increased activity of this kind over the next few years.
“We’re in a ramped-up, elevated stage from now for the next four, five, six years,” Murtagh tells Grace Toohey of the Los Angeles Times. “We’ll certainly see more [auroras]. ... If you missed this one, stay tuned, there’s more to come.”